Sustainable means able to be sustained, and the alternative, then, is things that are unable to be sustained.1
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?
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 Good2 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.3
- 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,4 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.
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.5 We show no sign of voluntarily realigning our society and our culture to follow the laws of nature.6 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.