Criticism. Essay. Fiction. Science. Weather.
I like biology. And I like architecture. And, even more, I like it when you can combine the two. But for the most part, I've only seen the two disciplines interact at the level of the shapes and forms used in buildings. It's been: this building
looks "organic" or this banister
looks kind of like a vine or this entry
kind of reminds me of hand bones or a lily pad or something.
More recently, architects have started to use "biological principles" a bit more deeply in architecture. Green buildings, the eco-friendly work of Norman Foster, and Tadao Ando's blending of indoor and outdoor space all come to mind
. But the next big step is in the works. On some level, I think it's about as cool as anything I've ever seen. On another level, it makes me cringe to even think about the fact that it has come to this.
Right now, we've got a problem. There are 6 billion people in the world, and about half of them live in cities. In another 40 years, there will be 9 billion people and by that point as much as 80% of them will live in cities. Already there are a billion people who don't have enough to eat. I mean, on a day-in, day-out basis, they are starving. As the world population continues to grow, so will the number of people starving. And this is to say nothing of the damaging effects that global warming may have on our ability to grow food. So, soon we'll have an even bigger problem.
Not only do we need to figure out how to feed all these people, but we have to do it in a way that is healthy and - I cringe at the use of the word - sustainable. Enter the Vertical Farm
: a high-rise greenhouse, set down in the middle of the city, using recycled sewage to provide local produce to the residents of the city. Oh, and it can also be built with existing technology and it gives off excess energy.
Like I said, both the coolest thing ever, and enough to make Lewis Mumford, Henry Thoreau Wes Jackson and Wendell Berry very, very disappointed in all of us.
The work on the Vertical Farm project has been spearheaded by Dickson Despommier, a microbiologist and ecologist by trade and a professor at Columbia University. As he describes it, Vertical Farming has many advantages:
*Year-round crop production and higher yields per unit of area (1 indoor acre is equivalent to 4-6 outdoor acres or more, depending upon the crop)
*No weather-related crop failures due to droughts, floods, pests
*All VF food is grown organically: no herbicides, pesticides, or fertilizers
*VF virtually eliminates agricultural runoff by recycling sewage water
*VF returns farmland to nature, restoring ecosystem functions and services
*VF greatly reduces the incidence of many infectious diseases that are acquired at the agricultural interface
*VF converts black and gray water into potable water by collecting the water of evapotranspiration
*VF adds energy back to the grid via methane generation from composting non-edible parts of plants and animals
*VF dramatically reduces fossil fuel use (no tractors, plows, shipping.)
*VF converts abandoned urban properties into food production centers
*VF creates sustainable environments for urban centers
*VF creates new employment opportunities
*VF may prove to be useful for integrating into refugee camps
To elaborate on a few of these advantages. First and foremost, vertical farming has the potential to reduce the number of food miles
a typical city dweller's meal has traveled. I say potential because food mileage is not simply dependent on how far away the farm is from the plate. Under our current system, it's dependent on how far the farm is from the processing plant, the packaging facility, the distribution center and the supermarket. In order to substantially reduce food mileage, vertical farming must usher in a change in diets that results in greater consumption of whole foods.
Second, according to Despommier the West's global dominance is built on the outhouse. The thing that has enabled its rise is nothing more than our realization that if you dig a six foot hole and do all your business in there, disease transmission is reduced dramatically because the micro-bugs that cause so many devastating diseases can't climb out of the hole. One of the challenges of the developing world is that inadequate access to good growing land requires farmers to use human feces as fertilizer. Among other things, this results in high rates of parasitism and diarrhea among the rural poor, killing millions of children every year (this is what he means by "infectious diseases acquired at the agricultural interface"). Vertical farming solves this problem by turning "black water" (raw sewage) into "grey water" (treated sewage) which can be used to water crops. The sewage itself is digested for energy production.
Finally, integrating vertical farming into refugee camps. As we'll explore a bit below, it is in part the "localness" of vertical farming that is so appealing to me. For many reasons, this "localness" is extremely problematic, not the least of which being the startup costs necessary to build a vertical farm. Despommier and his team put the building cost at around $84 million a piece for one of these. The idea of setting down an $84 million building in the middle of a refugee camp is, of course, ridiculous.
Wendell Berry is the foremost defender of the agrarian way of life
in America today. He's written many passionate, eloquent, rough, angry and convincing essays about the tragedy the industrial way of life has wrought on the American continent. In losing touch with the family farm, we have sacrificed our deepest cultural values, according to Berry: "What [I] have undertaken to defend is the complex accomplishment of knowledge, cultural memory, skill, self-mastery, good sense, and fundamental decency -- the high and indispensable art -- for which [I have] no better name than 'good farming.' I mean farming as defined by agrarianism as opposed to farming as defined by industrialism: farming as the proper use and care of an immeasurable gift."
Berry's vision is profoundly local. His America is built on the farmer who owns his land, knows it intimately and has built a small, conscious community around it. And while Vertical Farming - with its focus on organic growing methods, recycling of waste into nutrients, nurturing of biological relationships and reduction of food mileage - is in some ways an interesting adaptation of Berry's vision, it misses the point on two levels.
First, though Berry is often classified among the "nature writing" set, he is more concerned with Farmers than he is with Farms. While I did at first have the vision of a new breed of individualist - call him the farmer-architect - owning his own vertical farm right in the heart of a vibrant city community, a little investigation reveals this to be a pipe dream. Vertical Farms are 50-story high rises that feed 50,000 people and cost $84 million to build. Who owns 50-story high rises? Not farmers.
Which brings me to my second point: Fundamentally, growing things inside is not new. What is new is about Despommier's idea is the scale. And that's where it really runs afoul of Berry and company. In his writing, local is synonymous with small. "Going to scale" - making something big, broad, national - in and of itself robs that activity of its intrinsic cultural value. Local farming is steeped in something old, deep and native. High rises are none of these things. Berry writes more convincingly than I: "We need to confront honestly the issue of scale. Bigness has a charm and a drama that are seductive, especially to politicians and financiers; but bigness promotes greed, indifference, and damage, and often bigness is not necessary. You may need a large corporation to run an airline or to manufacture cars, but you don't need a large corporation to raise a chicken or a hog."
And finally, these high rise farms really are placeless - the very fact that they are so self contained makes them alien to the landscape. This alien-ness makes them industrial, and in Berry's world industrialism is the opposite of localism. A vertical farm in Manhattan need be no different from a vertical farm in Tokyo need be no different from one in Dhaka. Again, Berry: "Industrialism prescribes an economy that is placeless and displacing. It does not distinguish one place from another. It applies its methods and technologies indiscriminately in the American East and the American West, in the United States and in India."
What Wendell Berry says is right. It resonates deep within me. I want to dig my hands into it and feel it all the way up to my elbows. His voice is of the richest, darkest, healthiest soil I've ever seen. But then I imagine trying to explain the cultural value of farming to one of our starving billion, and the humanism that makes Berry so compelling evaporates pretty quickly.