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.

black and white threshold edited

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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Crushing the Solar Garbage Compactor

I am not a violent man—but I can be quite ‘passionate’, and today I am feeling passion about solar garbage compacters. It may seem an unlikely lens, but garbage compactors are—ahem—very juicy.

The passion precipitating post, on TreeHugger, was mostly about the compactor doors breaking, which causes mounds of trash to build up on the street:

…the trash cans have solar-powered sensors and compactors that keep the trash compressed, only calling out to be emptied via wireless communication when truly full, which results in fewer trips from city employees to empty the bins and thus big fuel savings. They apparently saved the city $900,000 in the first year and reduce the number of times the trash cans need to be emptied from three times a day to three times a week. Impressive!

Impressive? You will notice there is no ‘green’ tab on this website; I am not impressed by green. I want to talk about the bigger picture. So…

We have a problem; garbage is overwhelming municipal budgets. Garbage compactors address that problem in a very typical way, which is to assume business will continue as usual, and to ‘fix’ the problem with brute force—massive amounts of money and technology: solar panels, sensors, computer boards, motors, crushers—moving parts of all kinds!

And then, typically, we will all be shocked—shocked!—when all of the technology turns out to be less simple and more expensive than a barrel with a bag in it.

So, reducing diesel truck trips may be ‘greener’, but there are many reasons it isn’t sustainable. We all agree oil isn’t going to last forever. And so diesel garbage trucks aren’t going to last forever, right? Which means this whole approach is both temporary and unsustainable, a brute-force, end-of-pipe patch. Yet we will be left with a bunch of once-expensive, now salvage, infrastructure sitting around our city.

Let’s address the actual problem in our pattern of living.

Let’s make less garbage. It is not like it is rocket science. Garbage cans on city streets are mostly full of food wrappers, coffee cups and newspapers. McDonalds, the chain we love to hate, proved a fully composting restaurant could be successful, and newspaper means there should be a blue bin, not a trash compactor. So, let’s stop it with the expensive, cumbersome and ugly band-aid solutions. Just address the real problem—too much garbage—by actually just reducing the amount of garbage.

Three groups of people need to be much, much more courageous for this to happen: engineers must build a city for people, not diesel trucks; bureaucrats must develop systems and regulations that are outside their comfort zone; and politicians must actually regulate garbage-based business models.

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The 3D Printing Bubble

This is a post with me, or about me, or something. After I engaged in a protracted argument in the comments section, Lloyd Alter summarized it into a post in its own right. Hint—I don’t think 3D printers are all that and a bowl of peaches.

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Easy Homemade Soap

This was one of my first posts on TreeHugger.com. See the original article here, which has for some reason been moved to an entirely different website.

soap

One day I tried to figure out why no one knows how to do anything anymore. We can’t understand, let alone repair, most of the gadgets we use everyday. We increasingly eat packaged and pre-prepared food; even organic food often comes wrapped in plastic. We don’t know how to grow tomatoes, can peaches, hem pants, or build fences.

As the last generations of depression-era children or back-to-the-landers take their leave of this world, these skills go with them. When we try to learn from scratch we soon discover that recipes in books don’t tell half the story.
I have never found why this knowledge started slipping away from us, but I did start trying to re-learn some of the basics. I now make my own soap, hand lotion, yogourt, and bread. I am trying to figure out toothpaste, but it is hard to find good information on abrasion damage. I also found a great cheese site, and I can’t wait to try it.

I feel great satisfaction when I make things for myself, and I get a surprising amount of cool points when people discover that I can create things usually only found in plastic tubs at the supermarket.

Anyhow, here is my soap recipe. It is customized to use full bottles of most of the oils, so you don’t have a lot of inventory lying around, and you don’t have to do a lot of measuring.

Let me stress that soap-making can be dangerous. Only make soap when you are comfortable with the safety procedures. And, don’t sue me.

This recipe makes a great soap that I regularly give as gifts. Making your own soap also has a certain cool factor, and I have had two soap parties for people who want to learn how to make their own.

Normally, when making soap, you do a lot of finicky weighing, since measuring by volume isn’t considered accurate enough. So far I have no problems, but I give both weight and volume in the recipe

Soap is made in two parts, lye and water and a mixture of oils. The two don’t combine easily, so they must be brought to similar temperatures. Lye and water get very hot when mixed, so the mixture must cool. The oils must be gently heated. The oil is nowhere near hot enough to cook with, but still, please do not start any fires. Every oil has a different saponification index, which is basically a measure of how much lye is required to turn that oil into soap. So, if you run out of coconut oil, don’t go replacing it with olive oil.

I mix the Lye and water in a four cup pyrex measuring cup. I heat the oil and make the soap in my big soup pot. The first time I made soap I used a whisk and my spatula, which I washed carefully later. Next time I used my Braun stick blender. Once I felt sure that I was going to make soap regularly, I bought a used stick blender at Value Village for $5.00 and dedicated it to soap making.

Lye is VERY caustic, so don’t get any on your skin. It also gives off nasty fumes, so use goggles and very good ventilation or a respirator. Check out the Materials Safety Data Sheet on lye.

You will also need a mould. You could use a 9 x 13 cake pan, and line it with wax paper. Cut the cakes of soap with a knife. I bought a used Rubbermaid bread box that is about 14” x 6” x 5”. This makes a big block of soap that is not safe to cut with a knife. I use a guitar string wrapped around a couple of chopstick handles.

The hardest thing about soap is knowing when it is done. This is judged by a state called ‘Trace’. This is when a dribble of soap kind of stays on the surface instead of sinking into the pot–think honey on a counter top as it slowly flattens out. Here is a not-very-good video of trace.

Check online for all the soap info you could want, from a very active community. The book that I used to work out this recipe is called The Soapmaker’s Companion, by Susan Miller Cavitch. This is also where I found recipes for hand lotion.
Lye – Mix in large pyrex measuring cup.

700 ml purified water
270 g or 91/4 oz lye (one small container)
Oils –Mix in a big pot

Olive oil 955g 4.5 cups
Coconut oil 390g 500ml 2 cups
Grapeseed oil 515g 500ml 2 cups

Use the cheap pomace olive oil, virgin doesn’t work as well.

Let lye mixture cool to 110F. Warm oils to 110F. When both are at the same temperature slowly pour lye mixture into oils. Mix with a stick blender until trace, scraping sides and bottom of pan periodically.

At trace, add 10ml cinnamon oil. Mix as little as possible, just enough to combine. Theoretically, the soap can harden very quickly at this stage, trapping your spatula inside a giant bar. I have never had a problem with this recipe.

Pour into mould. Wrap with heavy blankets for 24 hours to keep the heat in and help the chemical reaction.

The next day, when soap has set, cut it into bars and store, separated nicely, on brown paper in cool place. Turn over after two weeks. Use after one month.

Share the suds.

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Easy Homemade Yogourt

This is one of my first posts, on TreeHugger. You can see the original article here. I do almost everything different when I make yogourt today, but that will have to be the subject of another post.

yogourtOne day I tried to figure out why no one knows how to do anything anymore. We can’t understand, let alone repair, most of the gadgets we use everyday. We increasingly eat packaged and pre-made food; even organic food often comes wrapped in plastic. We don’t know how to grow tomatoes, can peaches, hem pants, or build fences.

As the last generations of depression-era children or back-to-the-landers take their leave of this world, these skills go with them. When we try to learn from scratch we soon discover that recipes in books don’t tell half the story.

I have never found why this knowledge started slipping away from us, but I did start trying to re-learn some of the basics. I now make my own soap, hand lotion, yogourt, and bread. I am trying to figure out toothpaste, but it is hard to find good information on abrasion damage. I also found a great cheese site, and I can’t wait to try it.I feel great satisfaction when I make things for myself, and I get a surprising amount of cool points when people discover that I can create things usually only found in plastic tubs at the supermarket.

Of these four, yogourt may be the easiest to reclaim, since it was likely discovered accidentally itself, by Arabic nomads some 8000 years ago.

Good yogourt is alive, and the bacteria that make it have remarkable health benefits. Yogourt is produced by the fermentation of lactose, so many people who are lactose-intolerant can eat it. It is good for the digestion, but also for certain infections, and you find it prescribed on all sorts of alternative medicine websites.

It is usually made by sterilizing milk, then adding a bacterial starter culture from powder or other live yogourt. I am lazy, so I make mine straight from powdered milk, with a can of evaporated milk for an Eastern European flavour. I start my first batch with Yogourmet, available in many Middle Eastern delis. Once I have made my first batch, I use the yogourt itself as a starter, just save the last half-cup to start the next batch. You can also buy live yogourt and use it as your starter, but I like the convenience of having freeze-dried bacteria at my beck and call.

YOGOURT

One can evaporated milk

Three cups skim milk powder

Water, 110 degree Fahrenheit, enough to fill up two litre jar

Yogourmet (one sheet, two sachets), or half a cup of live yogurt

I fiddled with my oven until I found a spot on the dial that maintains a pot of water at 110 degrees F. Too hot the bacteria die, too cool and nothing happens. I also leave the oven light on. This may be superstition, or a valid stabilizing heat source, I’m not sure

Mix all the ingredients together in the jar and top up with warm water (I use a Braun stick blender)

Put the bucket of warm yogurt mixture into a big pot full of 110 degree water (your pasta pot or whatever). This provides a temperature buffer, so neither heating nor cooling happens too fast.

Put the pot in the warm oven on the lowest rack. I usually put a couple of cookie sheets underneath, one upside down, so there is a little air pocket to keep the oven element from radiating directly on the pot. This may be overkill, but I am paranoid and I don’t want to toast the bottom of my yogourt. (another yogourt how-to site suggests putting the water bath and yogourt into a camping cooler to maintain the heat. That seems very smart, if you have a big cooler).

Let the proto-yogourt sit for the next 4-6 hours, checking the temperature periodically, and fine tuning the heat. The yogourt firms up as it cools, so don’t worry if it is somewhat sloppy when you take it out.

Refrigerate and enjoy. You can mix in a little (home-made) jam for that fruit on the bottom experience, or check out how to make a cheese spread from your yogourt.

The bacteria theoretically wear out after about 10 batches, but this has yet to happen to me. If I go away for a week or more and the yogourt has been sitting too long, I often just start from Yogoumet again.

The process seems fussy at first, but you will quickly figure out your own method, and then it only takes ten minutes to mix up two litres of yogourt. The hardest part is finding five hours to kill at home. It is great for homework and laundry nights. You can also save your water bath to flush a toilet or water some plants.

 

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