How many species will that cost?

This is my contribution to a group of Earth Day posts, mostly written by people I have met in the comments section of Small Farm Futures. I encourage you to enjoy the efforts of Jody and Michelle at animasoul, Clem at Gulliver’s Pulse, Brian at The South Roane Agrarian, and of course, Chris at Small Farm Futures.

Everything has a cost. We usually think of the price in dollars, but that actually hides the true cost.

The cost is paid in species, biomass, and ecosystems.

As interest spreads about big ideas like the Green New Deal, Universal Basic Income, single-payer healthcare, pharmacare or dental care—or more local ideas like a highway to Churchill, more ferries on the BC coast, or more vegetables in the far north, the question is always asked, “How will we pay for this?”

That is the wrong question. We should be asking, “How many species will this cost?”

As I wrote in my post on Universal Basic Income, I think this stems from a basic confusion about wealth.

Money is not wealth, money is simply a very elaborately printed IOU note. It has no value except in exchange for real wealth—like salmon, trees, cotton and wool. 

Further wealth is created when labour smokes salmon, mills lumber and builds houses or furniture, and knits wool into sweaters or weaves denim for blue jeans—and all those labourers need to eat and be sheltered and clothed with more wealth from nature. 

John Michael Greer introduced me to this insight of E.F. Schumacher, that goods produced by nature are the primary goods in any economy, and those produced by human labor are secondary goods.

Greer goes on to extend this framework to tertiary goods, which is simply the pushing of numbers around on computers. 

But the thing is, we can’t eat money, and we can’t eat the numbers in the bank’s computer. 

Money is simply a convenient, pocket-sized promise we make to trade for real wealth at a later time. Wealth only comes from nature, and from the application of labour to the wealth of nature.

Let me say that again for emphasis—wealth only comes from nature, and from the application of labour to the wealth of nature.

People become rich by extracting wealth from nature and from labour.

In our current economy, that means the rich get rich by killing ecosystems and exploiting people.”

So dollars are just an IOU for an actual, real, material thing extracted from the ecosphere and modified by human labour.

And it turns out the actual, real material things add up to 92 BILLION tonnes per year—our food, metals, fuels and minerals. But we don’t just poke the earth with a syringe and suck up pure copper and refined gasoline. The situation is actually much more bleak, if we take a wander down resource extraction curves.

Marion King Hubbert became famous as Peak Oilers discussed his prediction that “for an oil-producing area, from an oil-producing province, a nation, or the planet as a whole, the rate of petroleum production of the reserve over time would resemble a bell curve.”

The reasons for this are simple. We live on a finite planet, and we always start with the easy stuff. So we cut down the trees on the flat land first. We collect the oil that is literally bubbling out of the ground. We find three tonne nuggets of copper just lying in a creek bed.

We walk up to an apple tree and pick the low hanging fruit. 

We never start with the hardest to reach fruit. Our first response is never to get out the orchard ladder. We don’t look at that bubbling pool of oil and decide the next step is invent horizontal drilling.

We pick the easy stuff, and if we develop a taste for it we move up the tree. Maybe we stand on a rock. Then we sew a picking bag, then build a ladder.

The picking bag allows us to harvest tens of pounds of apples without wasting time climbing down to empty our pockets, and the ladder gets us up to where the branches are heavy with fruit in the sunshine. We fill our boxes with ease, but then things start to get harder and—at the peak of our technological development—we pick the last apple.

We pick the last apple.

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Let’s look at that three tonne copper nugget again.

The Bingham Canyon Mine is largest and most productive copper producer in the world, and lies in the hills above my relatives in Salt Lake City. Each day 450,000 tons of material are extracted. And each year, 300,000 tons of copper are produced.

Are you following those numbers? That means that one of the finest copper mines in the world is digging up ore that is only 0.18% copper—that is a long way from a three tonne nugget. 

So, every day, 450,000 tons of the earth are dug up, of which 810 tons are the copper we need for our windmills, electric cars and smart phones.

So we just throw the other 449,910 tons of dirt somewhere else.

Every day.

In the history of mining, lakes and river valleys have been a convenient place to dump, but it could be a grassland or a desert. Regardless, it is dumped into an ecosystem, the home of countless flora and fauna who used to live there before that mine came.

Now, not everything we extract comes at such a pitiful rate, but the pattern is just the same.

In British Columbia, where I live, many First Nations had productive river fisheries. The salmon would swim hundreds of miles inland to spawn, effectively delivering groceries right to the nets, weirs and jaws of human and other fishers lining the river banks.

But with colonization that wasn’t quite enough, and so technology took us up Hubbert’s Curve. Fishing boats with lines and nets, sail power, then steam, then oil. Ever larger winches and engines. And wouldn’t you know it, with this massive extraction from the ocean comes a lot of bycatch. It is not as poor a rate as copper mining, but according to the WWF, about 40% of what we haul on board is not what we were fishing for and much of that is tossed back overboard, dead or dying. I spent a summer purse seining for salmon on a small boat, mostly off Vancouver Island. In one tragic set we brought up a net full of rockfish. These fish are armoured with spines, and punctured a crewmate’s boot when he kicked one. They also live very long—easily a century—and are slow to reproduce. They dwell deep in the cold waters and when they are dragged to the surface, their guts turn inside out with the pressure change.

You shouldn’t eat rockfish, but they are delicacies on many fancy menus. We left hundreds of them dying in our wake.

Anyhow, Hubbert’s point is that we have to do more and more to get less and less, until finally it costs too much to do anything at all and we stop.

And so let’s talk about that 92 billion tonnes that we extract each year from the ecosphere. As reported, resource extraction is the source of 50% of our greenhouse gasses and 80% of biodiversity loss.

At the rate of the Bingham Canyon Mine, for the 20 million tonnes of copper that are mined globally each year, about 11 billion tonnes of mine waste would be dumped into the ecosphere.

Every year.

“Into the ecosphere” is a pretty smooth phrase. What I really mean is that 11 BILLION TONNES of copper mining wastes are dumped on TOP of animals and plants, rivers, creeks, marshes, glades, dens and nests. Just for copper.

Every year.

For fish, of the 90 million tonnes of seafood caught each year—which doesn’t include the rogue, uncounted fisheries—millions and millions more tonnes are bycatch, thrown back dead or dying.

And of course this does not count the ghost nets, cut loose to entangle whales, the bottom draggers that rip up coral reefs or kelp forests.

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So. 92 billion tonnes is a staggering number. It is probably double anything that could be vaguely considered sustainable. And it is just a fraction of the true amount we dig, and drag out of the planet, only to throw overboard or dump to the side.

As with all diminishing returns, it is only getting worse—but this is how we earn money.

This is how we pay for our roads and hospitals and schools and televisions.

We pay for those things with biodiversity loss. As Daniel Quinn says:

It’s obvious that it costs a lot of money and energy to produce all the food we need to maintain our population at six billion. But there is an additional, hidden cost that has to be counted in life forms. As I’ve said, it’s conservatively estimated that as many as 200 species are becoming extinct every day as a result of our impact on the world. Put plainly, in order to maintain the biomass that is tied up in the six billion of us, we have to gobble up 200 species a day.

This—this shitty, unequal, unjust continent of strip malls requires 200 species a day.

So when we talk about growing our economy, when we talk about eliminating poverty, when we talk about expanding manufacturing, we are talking about more than 200 species a day.

And so I love the folks at Strong Towns who ask how we can build places that are productive, not extractive.

I love how they do the math—every roadwork, every arena or stadium, every fire hydrant has a cost. Where will the money come from? Most towns never produce enough money to pay for their own streets and water systems—they are just quietly mouldering into bankruptcy, hoping for the feds to send them a few species worth of infrastructure money.

I love it because they strip the conversation down to something that feels very real to me.

If a fox spends more energy chasing mice than it earns from eating mice, it starves to death and dies.

Where is the money for the Green New Deal, or the hydrogen highway, or total electrification going to come from? I am not fucking talking about who we are going to tax. It is going to come from wealth, extracted from nature and worked by labour. It is going to come at the cost of at least 200 species per day, every day.

The finest ideas of equality and justice cost 200 species per day.

I am right on board with lining the billionaires and industrialists up at Madame Guillotine. But I am not on board with using their billions to build electric cars kill 200 more species every day.

400 in two day. 600 in three days. 800 in four days.

In just five days, one thousand species are lost forever.

The people who should be my comrades foolishly drone that debt doesn’t matter, forgetting that some accounts can never be paid back—once they are gone, they are gone.

This is perhaps the purest source of my grief. I don’t see the world through rosy lenses, but rather as species, and ecosystems of relationships—so every time I read another godforsaken call for more good things for more good people I can’t help but weep.

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I recently had a social media conversation about Universal Basic Income, and I would like to expand on it here.

I think a UBI may greatly increase our environmental impact—and produce only a more equitable arrangement of deck chairs on the Titanic.

The conversation arose when I was asked to explain my reaction to the subtitle of Rutger Bregman’s book, Utopia for Realists: The Case for a Universal Income, Open Borders, and a 15-Hour Workweek. 

Bregman posted a very interesting article adapted from his book, called Why do the poor make such poor decisions? If you have read my posts on Compassionate Systems, you will find Bregman’s article in alignment.

I have not read the book, so maybe he does a bait and switch after the subtitle—but if he really does support “Universal Income…and a 15-Hour Workweek” I think that shows Bregman does not understand sustainability. 

I have been tentatively participating in discussions about UBI for a couple of years now. There is an odd assortment of people promoting basic income—pragmatists, business people, and radicals on both right and left, and it is really having a moment thanks to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal. I haven’t liked the smell of basic income but the various ideas have not coalesced into anything coherent enough to respond to, so I haven’t written more than the occasional comments until now, when I was asked to explain myself further.

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So how will we pay for a Universal Basic Income? The image above is from Time Magazine—can we really have a life of reading books while idly picking dollars off The Magic Money Tree?

Indeed, an article in Forbes tells us how we will pay for the Green New Deal ‘Isn’t a thing’. The only question raised is about inflation.

If the plan is just to comprehensively tax the rich and give their money to the not-rich, then all we are doing is redistributing the profits from killing the planet. 

As I said, I think it is much worse than that, I think a UBI may kill the planet faster.

It all stems from a near universal confusion about what money is.

Money is not wealth, money is simply a very elaborately printed IOU note. It has no value except in exchange for real wealth—like salmon, trees, cotton and wool. 

Further wealth is created when labour smokes salmon, mills lumber and builds houses or furniture, and knits wool into sweaters or weaves denim for blue jeans—and all those labourers need to eat and be sheltered and clothed with more wealth from nature. 

John Michael Greer introduced me to “E.F. Schumacher’s insight, that goods produced by nature are the primary goods in any economy, and those produced by human labor are secondary goods”.

Greer goes on to extend this framework to tertiary goods, which is simply the pushing of numbers around on computers. 

But the thing is, we can’t eat money, and we can’t eat the numbers in the bank’s computer. 

Money is simply a convenient, pocket-sized promise we make to trade for real wealth at a later time. Wealth only comes from nature, and from the application of labour to the wealth of nature.

Now, various corporate greenwashers, shills, and green tech promoters want to “decouple” our economy from environmental impact—but again, this is just ignorance of the difference between money and wealth. It is impossible. When we “share experiences” we do so in real buildings built and operated with the wealth of nature and labour. When we share a meal with friends, we consume food that came from the earth and was cooked by labour in kitchen that came from the earth powered by energy that came from the earth. We go to a concert in a hall built from the earth, powered by the earth, and drink beer from the earth. 

Yes, we can reduce the amount of impact our consumption has, but decoupling is just marketing. There is literally nothing you have ever touched or consumed that did not originate in nature. Furthermore, there is a floor of consumption below which people cannot go, or they die of starvation or exposure. You can’t decouple that. 

So wealth comes from nature, and from the application of labour to the wealth of nature. People become rich by extracting wealth from nature and from labour. In our current economy, that means the rich get rich by killing ecosystems and exploiting people.

Now, I support extremely radical taxation, but I hope I am being clear that taxation simply distributes the profit from killing ecosystems and exploiting people in a more or less equitable fashion.

This puts the conservative in conservatism. Whenever we talk about universal healthcare, increased social programs, hospitals in small towns or highways to remote towns, building a subway, recycling—whatever—we must ask what wealth are we going to extract from nature to make this possible? Asking how we will pay for something is not a question about debt and government bonds and inflation.

Daniel Quinn makes this clear in his incendiary essay The New Renaissance.

It’s obvious that it costs a lot of money and energy to produce all the food we need to maintain our population at six billion. But there is an additional, hidden cost that has to be counted in life forms. As I’ve said, it’s conservatively estimated that as many as 200 species are becoming extinct every day as a result of our impact on the world. Put plainly, in order to maintain the biomass that is tied up in the six billion of us, we have to gobble up 200 species a day – in addition to all the food we produce in the ordinary way. We need the biomass of those 200 species to maintain this biomass, the biomass that is in us. And when we’ve gobbled up those species, they’re gone. Extinct. Vanished forever.

Those 200 species . . . why exactly are they becoming extinct? Are they just running out of air or water or space or what? No, those 200 species are becoming extinct because they have something we need. We need their biomass. We need the living stuff they’re made of. We need their biomass in order to maintain our biomass. Here’s how it works. Go down to Brazil, find yourself a hunk of rain forest, and cut it down or burn it down. Now bring in a herd of cows to pasture there. Or plant potatoes or pineapples or lima beans. All the biomass that was formerly tied up in the birds, insects, and mammals living in that hunk of rain forest is now going into cows, potatoes, pineapples, or lima beans–which is to say into food for us.

We need to make 200 species extinct every day in order to maintain the biomass of six billion people. It’s not an accident. It’s not an oversight. It’s not a bit of carelessness on our part. In order to maintain our population of six billion, we need the biomass of 200 species a day. We are literally turning 200 species a day into human tissue.

If this were something that was going to stop next week or next month, that would be okay. But the unfortunate fact is that it’s not. It’s something that’s going to go on happening every day, day after day after day–and that’s what makes it unsustainable, by definition. That kind of cataclysmic destruction cannot be sustained.

We’re like people living in the penthouse of a tall brick building. Every day we need 200 bricks to maintain our walls, so we go downstairs, knock 200 bricks out of the walls below and bring them back upstairs for our own use. Every day. . . . Every day we go downstairs and knock 200 bricks out of the walls that are holding up the building we live in. Seventy thousand bricks a year, year after year after year.

I hope it’s evident that this is not a sustainable way to maintain a brick building. One day, sooner or later, it’s going to collapse, and the penthouse is going to come down along with all the rest.

Making 200 species extinct every day is similarly not a sustainable way to maintain a living community. Even if we’re in some sense at the top of that community, one day, sooner or later, it’s going to collapse, and when it does, our being at the top won’t help us. We’ll come down along with all the rest.

So, I have yet to see a UBI proposal that addresses sustainability—the extraction of wealth from nature. I will be happy to cash my UBI paycheque—for the few years our culture might have left in a wildly damaged ecosystem—but UBI is just a band-aid on a sucking chest wound of living beyond planetary limits. 

We will live within limits—either we choose to do so, or nature will force us to do so.

The 15 hour work weeks might be a bit better? Like I said, I haven’t read Rutger’s book, so I don’t know what the proposal is and my critique may be way off base. But typically arguments like these are something like, “If we stopped letting billionaires squirrel wealth away in the bank, we would all only need to work 15 hours a week.”

I think this could actually cause enormous ecological damage.

Again billionaires don’t squirrel away wealth—or at least only a very small share. They are billionaires—they possess over one billion dollars—because they have not converted the money into wealth extracted from nature. Yes, they have more yachts and houses and diamonds than the rest of us, but what they squirrel away is money. Most of their riches are actually just numbers “invested” in a computer. 

If you distribute those numbers to the rest of us, we will actually turn them into wealth—into salmon we eat and trees we cut. This is a feature of localism—spending money locally keeps it cycling in the local economy, being spent over and over and over again on the real wealth extracted from nature and labour.

So redistributing wealth from the tertiary economy—from the stock market and billionaire’s bank accounts—will radically increase environmental impact. It will turn numbers in a spreadsheet into species on the extinct list.

The first time I put that into words I felt like vomiting—and I still get queasy thinking about it. 

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I have yet to see any proposal for UBI or shorter work weeks that starts from the question of what the ecosystem can sustainably provide—but here is a good starting point. 

Human population was fairly stable for a thousand years at about a quarter of a billion people.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_overpopulation?

One thing and one thing only has allowed for the exponential growth in population, and this is burning fossil fuels. 

“But knowledge!!” people will say. Yes, knowledge matters. And I think useful knowledge could likely lift that population ceiling to half a billion people, or maybe even one whole billion human beings. But that is all. 

Here is a searing paragraph from Greer’s eulogy for William Catton, who wrote Overshoot. 

The difference in energy concentration between input and output, it bears repeating, defines the upper limit of complexity. Other variables determine whether or not the system in question will achieve that upper limit. In the ecosystems we call human societies, knowledge is one of those other variables. If you have a highly concentrated energy source and don’t yet know how to use it efficiently, your society isn’t going to become as complex as it otherwise could. Over the three centuries of industrialization, as a result, the production of useful knowledge was a winning strategy, since it allowed industrial societies to rise steadily toward the upper limit of complexity defined by the concentration differential. The limit was never reached—the law of diminishing returns saw to that—and so, inevitably, industrial societies ended up believing that knowledge all by itself was capable of increasing the complexity of the human ecosystem. Since there’s no upper limit to knowledge, in turn, that belief system drove what Catton called the cornucopian myth, the delusion that there would always be enough resources if only the stock of knowledge increased quickly enough.

So knowledge is not enough. We still need resources, and especially, we need the primary resource, energy. If we want to do much at all we need highly concentrated energy. 

“But solar!!” people will say. “Windmills!!”

Neither of these is a concentrated source of energy.

We built this modern, globalized economy with oil that had an Energy Return on Energy Invested of 100:1—we had to burn one barrel of oil to gain 100 barrels. One gallon of gas contains the energy of weeks of human labour, so that gave us a massive surplus of energy. 

We are now down around 30:1 EROEI for fossil fuels—and the world we built for 100:1 doesn’t work so well. 

Solar and wind are 10:1, maybe 15:1. Some of them are less than 1:1–in other words, it takes more energy to manufacture the solar panel than it will ever generate in its lifetime. 

Here is another problem. 

You can’t make solar panels with solar energy. There is essentially no solar heavy industry—mining, refining and manufacturing. The concentrated energy carried fossil fuels is required in those industries. 

But can’t we just electrify manufacturing? No, because we can’t get the energy concentrations. 

So when we say we want wind farms, we are saying we want to keep changing the climate so we can mine and refine the resources and manufacture the parts.

And then of course, there are resource constraints. Being practical people, we dug up the easiest and richest resources first. This means the resources we have left are poor. Some analysts think that even if we could get over the social barriers and the financial barriers, there are not physically enough resources left in the ground for a transition to a renewable society. 

If a fox spends more energy chasing mice than it earns from eating mice, the fox starves to death. 

So, the world we can have with renewable energy is not this world. We simply won’t have the concentrated energy supply.

Therefore a world of 15 hour workweeks is a fantasy. Ask subsistence farmers how many hours they spend working and I think you will find it is a lot more than 15. 

Put another way, when we talk about 15 hour weeks or the UBI, what we are saying is we want to continue destroying ecosystems and changing the climate. We want to keep destabilizing our life support system. That is how we have built an economy that we think is rich enough to distribute more equitably.

One way or another, our future lies in what is able to be sustained, and that likely involves the work of subsistence we have seen in most of human history, human and animal-powered pastoralism and agriculture for a much smaller population base. 

Not a universal income or a 15 hour work week.

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“Well, should we just give up then?”

If only I had a dollar for every time I have heard this, always from well-meaning people. It is all too common if you talk about climate change, constraints on energy and mineral resources, or the erosion of social cohesion in our complex and overpopulated world. In other words, it is common if you insist on bringing reality into the conversation.

Our faith that progress is an arrow pointed ever upwards is a hard one to let go of—and we think of our save-the-planet work the same way—ever upwards, the best it has ever been, unquestionable.

But I say if what you are doing doesn’t work, it may be that you don’t need to do it Bigger! Faster! and Harder!

Maybe it just doesn’t work.
Maybe we need to do something different.

So the next response, “You want us to live in caves.” Obviously. Because different equals caves.

I don’t want to live in a cave. In fact, I want to live in a Jetsonian future in which our wondrous technology has liberated us from work while eliminating environmental impact, allowing us to truly find our place in the ecosphere alongside the splendiferous flora and fauna from tiny to titanic. I could be free to pursue something I am actually good at, like designing things.

But if you can stick with reality long enough, you start to realize that living in caves is a plausible, if undesirable outcome, whereas the likelihood of a Jetsonian utopia is that small speck you see disappearing over the horizon.

To review, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is higher than it has been for millions of years, and we are well past the Paris Agreement target of 350 parts per million. Anybody who can bear to look at a chart of the global energy mix can see that renewables are not going to replace fossil fuels, even if we do have the resources, energy and social will to divert significant portions of our focus to windmills and solar panels. Which we don’t.

Add on to this an evergrowing population, many of whom are quite rightly pissed off at the level of exploitation their people and resources have experienced. They would like a piece of the pie, and are getting more aggressive about taking it.

Meanwhile, perhaps thanks to climate chaos, the breadbaskets of agriculture are facing persistent drought, while simultaneously being constrained by suburbia.

Our fragmentation of the biosphere is doing plants and animals no good as extinction rates are reaching asteroid-impact levels.

 

Living in a cave starts to seem like a pretty reasonable response. So should we just give up, then?

No. Giving up is not reasonable. But my father quotes an old hippie saying, “When what you’re doing isn’t working, try anything else.”

And I agree, though I think we can narrow “anything” down quite a bit.

There are three practical things I always suggest—walkable communities, well-insulated homes, and local food.

Our future is going to be much less fossil-fueled, either because we actually choose to stop killing ourselves with oil, or because the disruptions to the ecosphere—the primary source of wealth—finally impact the economy so drastically that we end up in a Greatest Recession. Either way, that is going to mean colder homes and fewer cars.

This will also impact the ridiculously energy-intensive industrialized agriculture system we have now, with huge satellite-controlled tractors, trucks, planes, and climate-controlled storage warehouses.

 

To those three practical things I would add a fourth activity, less palatable for the solutions-oriented crowd—grieving.

Grieving is a skill we have ostracized in North America, and yet there may be no skill that will be in more demand. Foreshadowed by the images coming from drought-torn Syria, the famine building in Nigeria, Somalia and Yemen, or by nations slowly disappearing beneath rising sea level, we will see a lot of death and loss.

Extreme weather is becoming more common even here in North America, with events that already sound positively apocalyptic. Again, people will die. Homes and memories will be lost, livelihoods destroyed.

And that is just if it doesn’t get any worse.

Despite our best attempts to banish unpleasantness we actually do have faint memories of how to grieve for those people and places we love. I think the worst pain we may face will be from our loss of progress, our loss of the promise that the future will keep getting better.

There is no brighter future.

It is enough to make you wonder if you have done anything worthwhile with your life; and that question does not feel good for anybody.

Anyhow, there is plenty to do, and none of it requires living in caves.

 

There is one more consideration I would like to ask you to keep in the front of your mind. We don’t have a lot of time, and we have fewer resources.

It would be really great if we didn’t waste them. 

So, I like to think about failure. There is an example I heard once—it was a joke actually, from a time when internet memes were shared as email footers.

It said, “When an escalator breaks down, you still have stairs.”

An escalator is failsafe; it fails-safe. It fails-useful.

Compare this to an elevator. An elevator fails-dangerous—it is useless, maybe even a deathtrap.

As we become ever more frantic to fix the predicaments we have created, we will grasp on ever more wild-eyed schemes.

So how will they fail?

 

The failure of one small farm among thousands is not severe, whereas the failure of GMO crops could impact millions of tonnes of food. The whizbang vertical farms will pour millions of dollars down the drain when they fail. Globalized food systems require multiple systems to not fail—finance, legal, shipping, maybe refrigeration.

An elevator becomes a useless box. But without an elevator, our glittering towers also become useless boxes since few people can climb above four or five floors. Imagine a time of cascading failure, and think of all the concrete, steel and glass wasting away in the sky. Think of all the carbon embedded in all that material, all of the lives spent building these sparkling follies.

As failures cascade, we will weep to see our electric cars immobilized, the asphalt cracking from age on roads travelled mostly by people walking and riding bikes. So much steel, so much aluminum. So many batteries and computer chips. The breakdown of our Space Age fantasy of electric cars will strand incredible assets and waste the embedded energy and labour.

Yet a walkable community remains walkable.

If the heater in a super-insulated house fails, you are still warm.

When your bean crop withers, step to the next row and console yourself with a fresh carrot.

 

Maybe I will offer one more bit of advice for our sunset years. Again, not mine, but not an email footer either. It comes from my friend J.B. MacKinnon, who counselled me, “Drink enough Scotch, but not too much.”

 

 

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Trees are green, right? And green is good, right? So trees must be good, right?

How could trees be bad for the environment?

Many of us have a sense that we are not on the right path; in our bones we feel the damage we do to this planet really does matter.
And often we cling overzealously to charismatic symbols like trees and honeybees, and lose sight of the place of the symbols within the system.

Cities are trying to respond to increasing environmental pressures. For example, to reduce dependence on agricultural breadbaskets at risk of climate change-induced droughts, cities are promoting local and urban agriculture. To reduce use of climate-changing fossil fuels, cities are promoting renewable energy. These efforts are distinctly urgent as we head for 410 ppm of atmospheric CO2—remember that 350 ppm gives only a reasonable chance of maintaining a climate conducive to advanced civilization.

And trees throw shade on those efforts.

We need a Right to Light.

There is historical precedent here, and various jurisdictions have Right to Light legislation—usually used to make sure a new building does not shade your windows and turn you into a shivering ball of moss—but cities that want to be leaders need to make sure solar panels and gardens have as many rights as condo towers.

Sunshine is the renewable energy that is delivered right to your house every day, right to your vegetable patch and your solar hot water collector. Before electricity turned every building into a faceless box, architects designed both for daylighting and ventilation. Well-insulated buildings can get a great proportion of their heat and light from sunshine coming in the windows.

Unless you have a great big tree in front of you.

Street trees are more than just comforting tokens; a dense green canopy that helps us forget the moonscape clearcuts that supply us with paper and lumber. Trees do a lot for our cities; they slow and clean stormwater, they remove air pollutants, they look nice and appeal to our old evolutionary psychology, to name just a few. Urban trees should be seen as infrastructure alongside the pipes in the ground and the roads we ride on.

But the City of Victoria, where I live, protects certain native species and all very large trees—unless of course you want to put in a driveway, or build an addition on your house. You have no rights if you want to cut trees shading your solar collectors or vegetable patch, but if you want a place to park your Hummer, let the chips fly.

The City of Vancouver plans to plant 150,000 new trees, but unless a systems perspective is incorporated, they are planting 150,000 new problems and a forest of lost opportunities.

Here is how I think our urban tree system should work:

Trees are important habitat for myriad species. They look nice, and humans are hardwired to feel better, and perhaps be healthier when they can see trees. In cities they have the important job of shading asphalt to reduce the urban heat island effect. Trees can also provide tons—or on the scale of a city, tens of thousands of tons—of fruit and nuts. This would mean jobs for urban orchardists, food processors, farmer’s markets and foresters. It would also increase urban resilience to disasters by enhancing food security, and reduce the ecological impact of food transport.

And they can do all that on the south side of the street.

Let’s keep it simple by imagining a street that runs east-west. Trees planted near the sidewalk on the south side of the street will shade the blacktop, but not the garden on the north side of the street. Not the solar hot water collectors, not the windows that brighten life, not the photovoltaic panels, just the blacktop.

That is our infrastructure working for us.

This does not mean we will have fewer trees, it just means we will incorporate our Right to Light into urban design. It means we will not plant trees where they will block light and preclude energy harvesting with plants or panels for decades to come.

So, as infrastructure, when trees no longer serve the city they should be dug up, dynamited, moved or replaced. We don’t remains slavishly loyal to our old pipes and our leaking sewers. We don’t worry about hurting the feelings of our bridges and sidewalks. When our trees are preventing us from accomplishing other goals—goals much more important than a new parking spot—then it is time for them to move.

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Data wormhole for those who enjoy such things:

In Canada’s ‘Household Sector’ about 40% of our energy is burned by our cars and 60% is burned by our homes. 60% of that 60% is used for heating our homes and water. So about a third of our total personal energy use is just heating.

http://www.statcan.gc.ca/tables-tableaux/sum-som/l01/cst01/envi41a-eng.htm

Of the third of our energy use that goes to heating, about 60% is fossil fuels.

http://www.statcan.gc.ca/tables-tableaux/sum-som/l01/cst01/prim72-eng.htm

-Of the 40% share of electricity, 40% of that actually comes from burning coal and and natural gas. The remaining 60% is hydro and nuclear. And nuclear is not renewable. So actually, a large proportion of the energy that keeps the lights on and keeps us warm is non-renewable.

http://www.statcan.gc.ca/tables-tableaux/sum-som/l01/cst01/prim72-eng.htm

And here is a proposal for a solar hot water system that notes trees are blocking some of the insolation.

http://www.builditsolar.com/Projects/SpaceHeating/SolarHeatProjectIn%20Virginia.pdf

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Sustainable means able to be sustained, and the alternative, then, is things that are unable to be sustained.

What part of unable to continue suggests we continue right down the same path? It is like my whole culture is gaslighting me because I feel so crazy.

Putting a finer point on it, I have long been a critic of vertical farms, most recently in Vertical farms: the greatest hope for cities, or a band-aid on a sucking chest wound? 

Salon also posted Enough with the vertical farming fantasies: There are still too many unanswered questions about the trendy practice.

But over at TreeHugger today, the tireless Lloyd Alter gives vertical farms a little love after nearly a decade of criticism, with I was wrong about vertical farms; Aerofarms shows how to make them really work.

 

Aerofarms has apparently avoided many of the things Lloyd has criticized in the past: the farm is in an abandoned factory, the growing racks are stacked very high to get more square footage, the plants are grown hydroponically in a fabric medium so consumption of nutrients and water can be tightly controlled to eliminate waste, and LED lighting is used that can be tuned to the specific colours the plants need for optimal photosynthesis, thus reducing energy use.

Aerofarms is a classic Less Bad is not Necessarily Good solution, in which efficiency serves to distract from the finitude of our planet.

Falling from 500 feet may be “less bad” than falling from 1000 feet, but you are still dead momentarily after impact. 

Today, we spend 10 calories of fossil fuel energy to produce one calorie of food. Efficiency might allow you to use eight calories of energy to produce one calorie of food, but you are still losing net energy at a shocking rate. It is Not Good.

Before fossil-fueled farming, it was easy to see which farmers used more energy than they produced—they were the dead ones. With only their own or their animals’ muscles to power a farm, the chain of cause and effect was very direct.

In Salon, Stan Cox calculates:

producing America’s annual vegetable crop (not counting potatoes) in vertical systems under lights would require well over half of the electricity this country generates every year, and that would crank out 1.3 billion metric tons of carbon emissions per year.

Half of the electricity?! Hey, let’s be generous and assume they can double efficiency! Then it will only take ONE-QUARTER of all the energy used in the United States. And that is before we “succeed” in electrifying transportation and heating and cooling, thus radically increasing demand for electricity.

Which quarter of your energy use are you going to give up? Oh, you don’t want to give anything up? All right, I guess we need to increase capacity by 25%…

So, just a quick check-in on the facts:

  • The US energy mix is 90% non-renewable, while globally, energy used is 80% non-renewable. Replacing that energy with renewables is going to be a significant challenge—a challenge many analysts characterize as impossible.
  • Various IPCC reports and international accords agree Greenhouse Gases need to be cut sharply and very soon. 80% reductions by 2050 is one common target.
  • Even still, these 80% reductions are widely seen as inadequate to avoid catastrophic climate change.
  • James Hansen predicts a sea level rise of several meters in the next 50-150 years. His position is controversial, but he has a history of conservative conclusions.

Given these facts, let me sketch some vertical farm scenarios regarding the electricity used to power the lights, pumps and filters, and whatever CO2 producing devices they are enriching the atmosphere with:

Dark Green Reality
In this scenario, let’s assume we look at whole systems and determine the most important response to climate change is to radically slash material and energy use. Energy is allocated with great care to only the most important tasks, like the digital archiving of certain very valuable research texts, powering infant incubators, and very small amounts of pumping and other services.

Since sunlight falls on fields for free, it is immediately obvious that generating electricity to power lightbulbs to grow salad is a fool’s choice. Humans choose a more local and seasonal life, following and obeying the rhythms of nature. Birds chirp in every tree.

Bright Green Utopia
The electrification of the ‘developed’ world accelerates, with champagne corks popped for every new Tesla model. The developing world follows, with electric cars, air conditioners, televisions, light bulbs and computers reaching billions more people then ever before.

To power all this requires damming every trickle of water on the planet, while resource extraction and manufacturing for solar panels and windmills still need huge amounts of fossil fuels. Coal plants stay online to cope with differences between demand and renewable supply (caused whenever the sun goes down), and there is a huge surge in (non-renewable) nuclear power development. The downwind pollution from nuclear reactors and fuel mining continues to cause cancers and birth abnormalities, and the spent fuel continues to have no place to be safely stored for the lifetime of the danger. It takes a century, but Aerofarms factory is washed away by rising sea levels.

Hell in a Handbasket
Increasing climate chaos activates human lizard brains at a mass scale, causing people to double down in a hedonistic fuck-it—a sort of perpetual Black Friday riot. All of this consumption requires massive amounts of electricity, so coal plants are spun up to maximum and construction starts on dozens of nuclear plants, as well as fuel mining and processing plants.

Global average temperature soars, ice caps suffer catastrophic melt raising sea levels dozens of feet within decades, not centuries. One billion people are displaced and massive urban areas including New York City and Mumbai are inundated. Aerofarms original location is washed away.

Business as Usual
On our current trajectory, BAU is not wildly different from the Hell in a Handbasket scenario.

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There is no way to make vertical farms good. Neither our current model of transporting food great distances nor vertical farms are good responses to overpopulation and urban concentration. Maybe they are less bad. Maybe.

The public discourse, politicians, academics, journalists, scientists, most seem to be blithely washed along in the flood of business-as-usual. The plan—the actual policy—seems to be hoping a knight in shining armour will ride in to save us. This is enormously frustrating for me.

“Would you like to get kicked in both knees, or just one knee?”

“Erm…. I would like to not be kicked at all…”

We are talking about systems that rely on non-renewable resources, and are therefore impossible to sustain. The immutable forces here are the laws of nature. If our agriculture is not sustainable, that means it will not be sustained. That means it will end. That means people cannot eat it.

Less Bad is slow death.

But it is true, talking about what is Less Bad and what is Good obscures the reality of the situation a little.

The challenge is that while Less Bad is slow death, Good is increasingly looking like different death, at least in the short term. We show no sign of voluntarily realigning our society and our culture to follow the laws of nature. Rather, we continue to throw energy, materials and technology at problems. This makes a reckoning inevitable, and it is hard to see how an involuntary reduction in population can be avoided. It sure looks like truly sustainable agricultural practices that could feed humanity will only be widely adopted when we have exhausted all of our Less Bad options.

Now, slowing bleeding is always a good idea, but we are way past the cut and scrape stage. When medics perform triage after a catastrophe, they leave some people bleeding because they have no hope of survival and the bandages and personnel are needed for people who might live.

So, should we focus time and attention on infrastructure that, as these rough scenarios show, cannot endure? Personally, I try to work for things that are Good.

Which is not vertical farming.

 

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