It is Elegant, but is It Feasible?

As Urbanization Week continues, Liz Borkowski put up a great post about feeding cities that includes a nice, rational (look at the comments for more good stuff) discussion of the idea of Vertical Farming. I'm glad to see the issue come up, because it has so much power. I'm grateful to Liz for providing such a balanced and rational discussion, since most of them aren't.

I don't think I'm even overstating when I say that every time I go somewhere and talk about food, someone asks me what I think of the idea of Vertical Farming. It is the cool, trendy idea about feeding cities that gets tons of attention - woohoo, let's build heated food towers in Manhattan. I can understand the appeal in many ways.

Now this idea has been subject to some take downs, including this one by George Monbiot (thanks to Moshe Braner for pointing me to this article), but to me, the problem with vertical farming is the same problem that I have to whatever the latest super-hot renewable technology that's going to save us as soon as it comes out of development and becomes affordable, or even for fancy light rail systems in smaller cities (note, I'm not opposd to all light rail). The problem is that that the ideas are bad or wrong per se - the problem is that they are complex and expensive, and we are puttiing the cart before the horse when we leap to complex and expensive before we go for cheap and simple.

We have a strong taste for complex and expensive, especially when it looks cool - generally speaking, and in an era of cheap energy and economic stability, there's at least an argument for doing the complicated fancy thing - first, you can, second, the results are more elegant than what you can generally get without complexity. But in a society with major economic constraints and facing the reality of less, rather than more available energy for consumption, complex and expensive becomes not only a bad idea, but infeasible.

This isn't something we have to hypothesize about - ask yourself whether the State government or city of New York can afford to build multi-million dollar high rise, heated semi-solar food growing towers in mid-town Manhattan? Ask whether your small city, already laying off cops and firefighters can afford a huge new tranportation system? Ask whether you can wait for X miracle technology to come online before you act? Where will the money come from right now? And if we don't have the money right now, why do you think we can do it further down the depletion curve, or after climate change starts taking a larger and larger percentage of our GDP?

These are often elegant solutions, and that's how they get so much airplay - I don't deny that, and like everyone, I have a taste for the elegant. It would be fun for you to be able to go to your vertical farm and buy out of season tomatoes - but it would be smarter if you could just get tomatoes in season that were grown in your neighborhood, without the million dollar investment. Moreover, given the energy required to make it happen, it almost certainly would require less energy to fly tomatoes in from Florida. If you could do it at all, do we really think that the ordinary middle class and poor will be eating those vertical farm tomatoes? If not, why do we care? Making sure the rich get tomatoes in February is simply not a priority for me, and I suspect, shouldn't be for a society at large, if the larger question is "feeding the city" not "feeding the affluent" (generally speaking the affluent do a decent job of taking care of that for themselves, I've heard)

The problem is, using the solar panels we already know how to build, and turning off thel ights, using the seed varieties we already have but that the poor can't get, using the school buses during the weekends and after school to provide local public transportation and putting up ride sharing boards, using the inexpensive technologies we already have to extend seasons and getting over the idea you should always have tomatoes isn't sexy. It isn't elegant - in fact, it is complicated and ambiguous - but cheap and simple. Everyone can do them.

Municipalities already struggling with budget cuts can take the municipal compost and help people establish community gardens and urban farms, and local season extension. They've already paid for the buses, so taking the elderly to the grocery stores on the weekends so that they can stay in their homes and encouraging carpooling is cheap and simple. Solar panels aren't cheap - but get enough people organized together and you can put them on some of the critical infrastructure - maybe not on every house, but you can have a solar water pump in each neighborhood in case the water goes out, you can power the local community center so people can take a shower there and stay warm when the power is out everywhere else. Getting over our presumptions about how the world ought to work - ie, that it ought to be costly, consumptive and complex - is easier, realistically, than most of the elegant solutions.

These solutions are particularly important in cities, where you can often substitute human cooperation for fossil energies fairly easily - but first you have to think in terms of human cooperation, to make a place for putting that first, to change our 60 years of assuming that we can always go immediately to expensive and complex. We know that this is no longer true - there are a host of studies, most notably the Hirsch report that demonstrate clearly that our options today are not the same ones we had in 1970 - and as long as we persist in assuming that we can start our projects any time we get around to them with the exact same results, that we don't have to give up the taste for elegant complexity, we're in big trouble.



More like this

You mean all those sci-fi books I read as a child aren't actually going to come true? Next you'll be telling me that there's no practical reason to colonise Mars! [Sulks]


I guess I'm out of the elegant solutions loop. When you first mentioned vertical farming, I pictured bamboo poles supporting beans and tomato trellises, maybe some potato towers. Couldn't figure why you'd have anything to say against that.

Well made points here. I'm encouraged that my region, while poor in public transportation, has long experience with school busing, and huge fleets of those vehicles. I guess it's only a matter of time before the sense of using them for adults outside of school hours becomes manifestly obvious.

I'm like Kate: when I heard of vertical farming, I thought of something like stacked window boxes that could be used to grow things in tight urban places where open space is at a premium if it's available at all. Apparently, I don't know what this technology is or what it looks like.

Our fleet of SUV's will turn out to be useful after all, and a hundred little van routes will take over for the couple dozen bus-routes that most cities have. That's what much of the rest of the world does, and it'll make sense here before too long.

Making sure the rich get tomatoes in February is simply not a priority for me, and I suspect, shouldn't be for a society at large, if the larger question is "feeding the city" not "feeding the affluent" (generally speaking the affluent do a decent job of taking care of that for themselves, I've heard)

I absolutely agree that making sure the rich get tomatoes in February is not a priority. I do think we have to consider what the rich will do, though, because their choices have a big impact. *If* vertical farms that sell to local customers turn out to be more energy efficient than growing food outdoors and shipping it long distances, then shifting wealthy residents' purchases to pricey, out-of-season local tomatoes will reduce overall GHG emissions. Of course, it's a big question mark whether vertical farming would be more efficient, but it's a useful example.

The same is true for things like light rail lines. (I know you make a distinction between rail lines in large vs. small cities, so we may not actually have a disagreement here - but, again, it's a handy example.) There are a lot of people who drive alone even though they have less energy-intensive options for commuting, and the result is traffic tie-ups that affect everyone, from bus riders to those who breathe the air. If a new light rail line can get enough people out of their cars to measurably improve the traffic situation, everyone benefits. Rising fuel prices will force some people out of their cars, anyway, but as we've seen in recent years a lot of people keep driving, either because they have the means to absorb the additional costs, or because their other options (carpooling, bus, etc) haven't been reliable enough to get them to work on time.

Whether and how much to invest in these kinds of things is a tricky question, and I won't claim it's an easy choice at a time of massive budget shortfalls. These choices are informed by estimates of how well and quickly the economy will recover - and that recovery will be influenced by investments we make now. Since I do expect that our economic picture will improve before we get walloped by energy prices and the effects of global warming, I'd like to see us make investments that will put us in a better position to face those challenges. That includes creating jobs to put today's unemployed people back to work and building things like light rail that will help people stay mobile when they can't afford to drive.

Well-stated points, Sharon. More simply put, these complex elegant solutions will become increasingly expensive because they depend on increasingly scarce, and therefore more expensive, resources. Thus, with constrained and decreasing budgets, officials will choose the less expensive and simpler options. It's a matter of people thinking of them and putting them before the city councils, etc., to show them the cost-effectiveness of these ideas. Budget constraints will dominate fancy, trendy sci-fi ideas. I especially like the idea of using school busses on off-hours for providing transportation to the public. Had never thought of that one.

The more I think about it, the more I have to ask: is it even really that elegant? Maybe other people have different understandings of elegance, but to me, elegance implies simplicity and ease, rather than complexity and effort. Sure, it's cool, in a kind of sci-fi way (and I'm a big sci-fi fan) but I wouldn't call it elegant.

And if we don't have the money right now, why do you think we can do it further down the depletion curve, or after climate change starts taking a larger and larger percentage of our GDP?

Whaddya mean? Economic recover is right around the corner! There's plenty of oil if them Obamacrats would just get out of the way & let us drill for it! What climate change? It was cold as hell this morning. We're going to pump SO2 into the stratosphere, fertilize the oceans w/ Fe, stick tubes up cows' asses & collect the methane, and.. sumthin' else too, I can't remember. What's with all this doomerism? This here's America! The Can-Do planet!!

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 08 Dec 2010 #permalink

Sure - there are fantastic theories of how vertical farming might look...often elegant, unrealistic, resource-sucking skyscrapers. However, there is a company called TerraSphere that has come up with a very sensible solution to urban farming. Terrasphere technology can be installed in existing urban warehouses where produce is grown in vertical rows - fully nurtured through the lifecycle and free of contaminants. Additionally, the Terrasphere system employs water saving and energy saving components that truly serve the company's triple-bottom-line approach. This company has designed a sensible, profitable way to grow healthy, local food (year round)...and make use of neglected buildings. Perhaps not the most visually elegant on the exterior, but this is an idea that is truly beautiful on the inside. And, isn't that what's most important?

Here a video tour by the founder of Terrasphere who seems to have built the first functioning and profitable vertical farm in the world:



By darwinsdog (not verified) on 08 Dec 2010 #permalink

darwinsdog: Just because I'm excited to support eco-friendly companies who are coming up with real solutions, doesn't mean you should stop complaining about the problems. Carry on with the pursuit of cleverness over quality information sharing.

Just curious, the fertilizer to feed the lettuces in those plant towers - soylent green? Nutrient cycling.


Just because I'm excited to support eco-friendly companies..

"Eco-friendly" my ass. Terrasphere is a limited liability corporation. Not interested in coming up with "real solutions," interested only in profit. Legally mandated to be interested only in profit on behalf of their shareholders. Corporatism is a major contributor to the problem, never a solution. Your promotion of their greenwashed product amounts to spam. Aren't these blogs supposed to be spam moderated?


..the fertilizer to feed the lettuces in those plant towers -

Bat guano from the belfries on top of these "vertical farms." Or is it those who promote such nonsense who have bats in their belfries?

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 08 Dec 2010 #permalink

So, what's wrong with making money? That's the only way eco-friendly business is going to make it! Just sharing what I know...

I'd be interested to hear a criticism of Terrasphere that wasn't based on "it's a corporation and therefore evil". I'm certainly not sold on the idea that using grow lights is a beneficial way to reduce energy usage, but I'd love to see the numbers run on total inputs from seed to table for say organic lettuce, normal commercial lettuce, and Terrasphere or other vertical farming for, say, lettuce. Myself, I think I will still just grow lettuce in my garden, but I would still like to see the numbers. And I think Dawn brings in an excellent point that $100 million towers are not the only option- there are lots of existing unoccupied buildings that could be re-purposed... if the project made sense from an energy perspective which I have my doubts.

This idea is crap, but in a few years there will be vacant lots and possibly whole buildings which could be made into (UNheated!) gardens to some extent. Verticality is something the city has going for it. People are still thinking embarrassingly boutique, but that will change.

Doesn't "elegant" in mathematics and science imply simple? Occam's razor and all that? Your solutions, Sharon, are much more elegant than the fancy-schmancy food towers.

I don't know about in your area, but around here, the school districts mostly don't own the buses any more. They've sold off their fleets, and contract with companies to provide bus service. We've been running into problems with maintanence (including falsified records in some cases). Going back to publicly owned buses isn't likely to happen in this economic climate either, even if there are benefits like using them at non school times for public transport. It's a shame, as that could help to fund the maintenance for the school buses as well as helping people do their shopping and keeping more business local.

@ Dawn,

I see nothing wrong with making money. But if by making money you mean a process that turns a resource or tangible asset into a more valuable (tangible) asset, then I have a concern. Many modern processes use cheap energy - oil, coal, or oil- or coal-fired electricity. Peak coal isn't all that far off, and peak oil happened four (4) or five (5) years ago. I think that most affluence - making money - is going to be challenged in the immediate future.

During the transition, making money, done cautiously, can be a means to increase preparedness, to succor and nurture those you choose to help, and even create opportunities.

The world had wealthy people - people that made money with no more direct goal than to make more money - before cheap oil. But there weren't many, and they weren't as wealthy.

So during the transition, making money is still going to be a wise thing to do. I don't think that very many people will be "making money" in the sense we think of it today, after the transition. Prepare for the "after" part, and you should do fine!

@ darwinsdog,

Please - this is usually a family type discussion, with family-type language usage expected. I felt your particular expression was crude and deliberately rude.

As for tubing the cows - it is my understanding that the methane produced is generated in the rumen/stomach, and released by burping. Your tube would be more suited to collecting compost, and unnecessarily complex and elegant, and costly, for the result.

If you want to harvest something - what about all those septic tanks out there, simmering away with their compost collections, generating methane to beat the band. Changing from septic systems to anaerobic digesters might make even more sense. Or mining/harvesting swamp land - where most of the world's methane is generated. Or the compost heap in your back yard, for that matter.

@ kate@livingthefrugallife ,

Using the school buses for public transport sounds great. The biggest problem I see is political - the school district owns the buses in my town, and operates in town as well as outside in two local counties. Because they come out of one distinct budget, it would take an act of congress to settle which bureaucrats keep custody, which do the maintenance, who is responsible for damage and liability claims, etc.

Then there is the little problem of school buses meeting one safety standard, public transportation having to meet a different standard. Different access rules, allowance for collecting fares, emergency stop requests, amount of seat per passenger.

Then there is an issue with complaints about unfair competition from cab drivers, the local, private transit operation, etc.

These are all achievable - but whether the issues could be addressed and resolved before the national debt is paid off will be much more likely in places other than where I live.

Reminder about the comment policy, folks - the deal is that you can be as mean as you want to me, but you have to treat each other civilly ;-). Can't do that, out you go.

Liz, I think the question is whether the energy and financials (and they are connected, of course, as you know) are really substantively different. You need vertical farms not to just be better than flying in tomatoes, but vastly better to be worth the infrastructure - I find it unlikely this is going to turn out to be the case, but I'm open to discussion. The burden of proof, however, lies heavily on the advocates of the complex, expensive strategy.

This is perhaps off-subject for urban life in general, but I think the strategies we've employed to entice the rich into not polluting have been largely unsuccessful because they haven't been accompanied with negative feedback, and that the production of negative feedback through cultural pressure, media, etc... is probably cheaper and less energy intensive than a whole bunch of expensive, elegant projects designed to entice people into doing what they should do anyway.

I don't think building something expensive and elaborate in order to entice the rich into giving up their cars or flown in tomatoes is nearly as effective as education and stigma - it is perfectly possible to imagine that ecologically destructive behaviors eventually become as unthinkable to most people as asking a non-white person not to sit in your section of the bus. It doesn't mean it will magically eliminate all such behavior, any more than we have eliminated racism, but enough social pressure and the public expression of such behavior diminishes - accompany that with enormous positive social pressure to demonstrate your ecological consciousness in effective ways (ie, not carrying cloth bags but not driving). If we have to choose (and I suspect at least at the state and municipal level, we probably do, because most of the figures I've seen suggest long term financial difficulties at those levels for some years to come, even if there is a recovery), I'm for that ;-).


One of the problems that we've faced with this complex society and employment community created by cheap energy, the same one Sharon argues that people are trying to perpetuate still, is that a certain amount of humanity just cannot find something productive to do in this complex economy. Those who favor complex solutions to living and to employment are kidding themselves if we think that everybody can become well enough educated via high school and college to qualify for a career in the world that we are (or were) increasingly building in the cheap energy age. Sure, there were and are some highly paid jobs for high level managers and executives to control the factory and farm machinery (often controlled from far away), but this was and is a part of the reason that our social underclass size was growing every year as well. Yes, that is something of a Luddite argument, but I think it holds.

Carried to the extreme, some people argue that we all must educate and reeducate ourselves ever more to prepare to all be scientists, engineers, and chief financial officers in a world dominated by the hyperbolic explosion of our economy and wealth level, aka known as "The Singularity." (Please do an Internet search for more on The Singularity if unfamiliar. It's a wildly amazing topic, especially for those who think that humanity's knowledge, technology, and energy knowledge has no growth limits. It's beyond the scope of this comment to explain the concept with any justice.)

Well, as a former electrical engineer and now as a person that works with at-risk teens, I can report that this world has left an increasingly large segment of people behind because not everybody can fit in, doing solar design work at a CAD station in some cubicle on the 3rd floor of a glitzy, glass office building overlooking Rt. 128 in a tony suburb of Boston.

If we are always going to go for the complex solution to our problems, where a smaller pool of highly talented people do the meaningful design, command and control tasks and jobs, and take more and more of the employment wealth, and thereby take the houses and other accoutrements of the good life, we're going to have to plan for and expect, a larger underclass that cannot keep up as well.

Taxing the hell out of the command-and-control rich as they concentrate the remaining wealth into their circles is one way to deal with this problem, and Sharon's solution as laid out in her essay above, is another. I suspect that we'll be happier with the latter solution as the former is what we've been trying so far, and with increasingly poor results, results that can only get worse as energy prices continue to soar with declining energy availability.

By Stephen B. (not verified) on 09 Dec 2010 #permalink

Actually, I'm not sure we've really been "taxing the hell out of the command-and-control rich" at all, though some have been trying to.

In any case, we as a society really haven't been handling this economic and engineering complexity well at all and the increasingly, wildly, unequal wealth distribution is yet another aspect of this failure.

By Stephen B. (not verified) on 09 Dec 2010 #permalink

I can report that this world has left an increasingly large segment of people behind because not everybody can fit in, doing solar design work at a CAD station in some cubicle on the 3rd floor of a glitzy, glass office building overlooking Rt. 128 in a tony suburb of Boston.

Probably just a well, really. One thing a lot of people seem to overlook (particularly Singularitarians) is that when you get down to brass tacks, all that clever design and managerial work isn't worth squat without somebody somewhere actually moving matter around. At the end of the day, our civilisation is still built with mud and sweat. (Which is what really scares them. You can't eat book-smarts.)


I felt your particular expression was crude..

I suggested sticking the tube up the cow's ass because I was mocking the AGW deniers who typically laugh at the idea of "cow farts" contributing to climate change. You're right, I was being deliberately crude, in order to make a point. Non-gratuitous crudity is a legitimate rhetorical device, employed by me and others, as a component of self-expression. If my self-expression offends you, don't read my posts.

As for tubing the cows - it is my understanding that the methane produced is generated in the rumen/stomach, and released by burping.

The primary flammable gas produced in the digestive tracts of livestock, and of people for that matter, is H2 not CH4. We may be primarily concerned with CH4, however, because of its high heat capacity & potential for contribution to AGW. If the emphasis is on collecting these gasses for combustion & energy conversion, then H2 is the more important component. These gasses are passed by both ructus & flatulation in ruminants & monogastric animals alike, the former route being predominant in ruminants, as you state, and the latter in post-gastric fermenters.

If you want to harvest something (CH4?) - what about.. the compost heap in your back yard..?

The compost heap in my back yard is designed to allow aerobic decomposition, which generates very little CH4. Pockets of anerobic decomposition may form, due to my laziness when it comes to turning the compost, but these are small & transient and not worth the trouble of trying to collect what small amounts of CH4 or H2 they may produce.

Traditional Chinese farmers resorted to both aerobic & anaerobic composting, to produce composts with a specific composition in order to alleviate specific nutrient deficiencies and other soil problems. I can only wish I possessed such a level of sophistication. It might be worthwhile for anyone possessing such sophistication, if any there still are any such people, to collect flammable gasses from the deliberately anerobic composting process they employ, as you suggest. This is definitely worthwhile in large livestock operations, municipal waste treatment facilities, etc., I agree.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 09 Dec 2010 #permalink

Brad K. - "whether the issues could be addressed and resolved before the national debt is paid off will be much more likely in places other than where I live"

Yep, you nailed it. There are so many good ideas out there, and so many people willing to help, why haven't we made more progress?

The city I lived in debated for thirty years to replace a commuter bridge that is old, inefficient, and dangerous. Rich people blocked any serious progress for years - and I am going to tell the ironic truth here that many of those same rich people thought of themselves as progressive community-minded people. All the good progressive logic came to a flying halt when the subject of a big construction project in their neighborhood came up. Then it was all obfuscate, all the time.

Further south, a newer bridge was built with far less contention; it traveled through historically poorer neighborhoods where there was less legal resistance to county and state building proposals.

Some rail is finally going up - far less than needed, and four or five times the cost than it would have been 25 years ago when they started discussing it.

I think people will start using low-cost, common sense solutions for the simple reason that they have to. Gubmint will sit on its arse, wholly vulnerable to the usual delay tactics of obfuscators, and bought off by people who aren't interested in helping anyone besides themselves to an easy buck.

Waiting for big gubmint is simply going to become intolerable. Neighborhood councils will start to act to keep their homes from flooding out. People will start going back to the more asian-style localized market place, because it's all that's affordable, and the best place to get healthy food, and keep up with local community business.

As for America's contribution, I will quote Churchill:
You can always count on Americans to do the right thing - after they've tried everything else.

We'll get on board very late, but at least, finally we will bring the energy and committment to the issue that the world wanted from us for thirty years.

As for vertical farming, I think home gardens are going to spring up faster, even in urban areas. People will start gardens on their balconies, in the garages, and on the rooftops. You'll see hundreds of these for every vertical farming operation that gets off the ground.

The vertical farming thing is just another Big Idea for everyone to argue about while doing nothing. People are going to just decide to start doing stuff on their own. Small individual actions.

Big gubmint will be irrelevant because by it's nature it won't be able to do anything useful. The catastrophes will come, the people will move and re-organize, and local leaders will spring up to help organize at the neighborhood level.

Gubmint will continue to be paralyzed, and continue adding to the problem by making a huge carbon footprint by flying way-overpaid officials all over the planet (first class of course, the most carbon-intensive way possible) to conferences, many of them with express orders to block any significant agreements due to "national interests".

Just find people you can hook up with locally, and start doing what needs to be done. Maybe now that's a choice for most people, but as time goes on, more and more of us will do that not out of choice, but out of neccessity.

There's a lot of speculation bring thrown around in these vertical farm comments. As a consultant doing commercial urban ag and green building design work I don't get to propose projects that require future scientific or engineering breakthroughs to make them work. I have to stick with project proformas and business P&Ls that are firmly rooted in here and now reality and truly cost-effective innovations. I've run numbers on vertical farm designs and even with EXTREMELY loose and optimistic projections about water, energy, construction costs, crop yields, etcetera, they're neither sustainable nor profitable. Run your own numbers. Do the design analysis. If you come up with some solid comprehensive and detailed design projections based on solid building engineering and farming practices I'd love to see them, and so would a lot of other people. Fact is, these vertical farm designs pencil out as huge money losers. There are good reasons why in the years since these designs began to appear on the Web NO developer has signed up to build a single one of them. At this point I'm tired of seeing these designs take up space in otherwise worthwhile blogs. I suggest that these designs stop being given blog space until finally one of the designs is accompanied by comprehensive and detailed engineering, farming and business projections that appear solid, sustainable and profitable.

"But in a society with major economic constraints and facing the reality of less, rather than more available energy for consumption, complex and expensive becomes not only a bad idea, but infeasible."

I wonder. Integral Fast Reactors breed nuclear waste. We have 300 reactor years worth of experience with breeders, and GE even have a plan ready to go (Called the S-PRISM reactor).

There is so much energy left over in today's 'nuclear waste' that if we built enough IFR's we could shut down uranium mining and run the world for 500 years burning today's 'waste'!

The final waste product of an IFR is so 'hot' it burns itself back to safe levels in just 300 years.

GE has a plan for the S-PRISM 300 MW reactor which has *modular parts* that could be mass-produced on an assembly line. These parts are trucked to site, and quickly clipped together almost like Lego. This smaller reactor is also ideal for smaller 3rd world electricity grids.

The IFR is the silver bullet that could solve peak oil, global warming, and our nuclear waste problems in one hit!

It is coming. They are planning them in India and Russia. And when we've burned all today's waste in 500 years, who knows what energy systems we might have by then?

Hey eclipse unnecessary, high tech, power-grabbing, corporate idea at a time. I think we are still talking food towers.

Eclipse Now,

Accepting for a moment the idea that all the engineering for those advanced plants along with the economics would work (and that's all a big IF), I propose that we'd never get anywhere near 500 years out of the waste we have on hand simply because people are greedy. That is, *IF* we suddenly got a 500 year supply of ultra cheap electric power from our present reactor waste, did you ever stop to ponder what humanity would do with it?

Well I'll tell you a few things right away. We'd go on building monster homes, all electrically heated. We'd over build everywhere, stripping every tree we could get our hands on for use as building material. We'd have a massive build out of electric cars, further paving the world (though I'm not sure how cheap electricity gets us more petroleum-based pavement.) We'd turn the world upside down looking for more copper for all the grid build out we'd need world wide too. In short, we'd strip so many other natural resources to the extreme, powered by our new found "cheap" electricity. We would, in fact, find that we run into all kinds of other limits as soon as the energy limit was seemingly lifted from us. We'd double, triple, quadruple, or more our electric use so that the 500 year supply of waste you talk about, would in fact turn out to be much less, probably not even 100 years at that.

I also think we'd have all manner of radioactive waste all over the place as the nuclear industry expands into every corner of every country's economy and landscape. Knowing what I do of how inept and crooked people are in THIS country, never mind a lot of poorly run, back waters in this world, the accounting for all the radioactive waste, by products, contaminated facilities, etc. would be mind boggling.

All that new-found power might also allow us to continue the blanketing of artificial, large-scale agriculture around the world too (perhaps substituting cheap electricity in some nitrogen-fixing, fertilizer process, as opposed to the present dependency on Haber-Bosch.) With that, we could kiss the rest of our Midwest topsoil goodbye. We could finish off the rest of America with diabetes and the whole host of other diseases that flow from a diet heavy in high fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated oils.

More cheap electric power further enables all kinds of trends that should be outright stopped and stopped now, never mind subsidized by more mega-corporate build outs of a nuclear industry already far too large.

In fact, I think ultra-cheap and plentiful electricity would be the LAST thing our race needs as it would only empower us to further try to run past limits we, in reality, passed some time ago. Better we bump up to the limits before increasing the dependency (and inevitable crash) even more.

I doubt you've really thought all the implications of what you wish for through much at all. Speaking as a former electrical engineer myself, I can tell you that all too often I found that people in the engineering community, especially the younger ones, ever really understand the implications of what they are working on until after the project has shipped out the door.

By Stephen B. (not verified) on 09 Dec 2010 #permalink

My 2 cents is only that this was a great article and as usual Sharon is one step ahead of me articulating and expanding thoughts I have.
Reality is a tough thing to grasp because it is a cold, dark place that most people don't like to go to. We all have a hard time going there because that wonderful cushy softness of fossil fuels feels so much nicer and confuses our brain.
Northern Va
Hi Sharon! Top form as usual!

Here, here, James Kalin. Well said.

The same criticisms you level to vertical designs apply in spades to producing food in abandoned buildings under lights. Terrasphere is a scam and shouldn't be pimped here. Tear those abandoned buildings down, remediate the soil where they stood as much as possible, and turn the property over to the people - not to corporations - to grow food on wholesomely, under the sun.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 09 Dec 2010 #permalink

A 100 story building has the same amount of sunlight falling on its roof as a one story building with the same footprint. Going taller doesn't increase the amount of solar energy available, it only steals it from one's shaded neighbors. It's a fantasy to think that a city like New York could feed itself.

I went to this talk at the Chicago Greentown conference - a conference where green entrepreneurs get together and talk about the things theyve done in their cities to make them more green - and there was a talk on vertical farming by this industrial engineer (see what he is doing at

While he was talking, he went on and on about the feedback loops and harnessing energy and restructuring industrial processes and I just kept thinking 'what about sunlight and air and water?' Everyone else at the conference just raved about how this guy is a technical genius, but I just think these more complex systems are *always* more precarious, even if the technology is stellar.

(a sidenote on these kinds of conferences: I got the distinct feeling that this is just a new version of technologists getting together to talk about the progress of humankind and exchanging business cards. It was very off-putting for me, someone who is not an entrepreneur, but interested in making the future a sustainable place to live. I had no business cards to hand out.)

Thanks, Sharon. Once again, you point out much better ways of dealing with things using fewer resources and sense.
The basic paradigm that needs to change is that humans have to stop being takers from the soil and planet and become useful to its future (and thus, their own).
We have to use resources, that's a given; but we should be creating some kind of usefulness above and beyond what we consume. Net Future Usefulness. The first step is to minimize what we consume whenever possible. The next step is to moderate our behaviors (sales/consumption tax instead of income taxes.. and the final step is to be useful to the future(knowledge accumulation, maintain the soils, and provide space defenses from cataclysmic events).
Nowhere in these steps is "protecting ego" or even national pride necessary. Overconsumption must end up in the same category as terrorism and incest. Generosity and usefulness need to become the norm for all of us.

By Auntiegrav (not verified) on 11 Dec 2010 #permalink

I'd love to move out of the city to a place where there is more room to grow food, have a garden, etc. But I need a job. And there are more job opportunities for me in a big city like Manhattan.

"Next you'll be telling me that there's no practical reason to colonise Mars! [Sulks]

By the time there is a practical reason to colonize Mars, the resources to do so will not exist.

More cheap electric power further enables all kinds of trends that should be outright stopped and stopped now, never mind subsidized by more mega-corporate build outs of a nuclear industry already far too large.This site is great.

I suspect that our early ancestors survived on hunting and eating other hominids, and eventually other Homo sapiens. Our precarious and unwise reliance on food produced artificially has created a population boom, which ironically, may provide nourishment for those willing to survive by cannibalism should our unnatural civilization collapse.

arama motorlari AK Parti Kütahya Milletvekili Hasan Fehmi Kınay tarafından verilen yasa teklifi ile döner sermaye düzenlemesinde önemli iyileÅtirmeler saÄlanacak. Teklif, torba yasaya eklenecek. Torba yasada yapılacak bir baÅka düzenleme ile de saÄlık kurumlarında çalıÅan sözleÅmeli büro personeline döner sermaye hakkı veriliyor. Böylece geçici iÅçi kadrosundan büro personelliÄine geçerek saÄlık çalıÅanı olan 2 bin kiÅi ilk kez döner sermaye alabilecek. Gelecek hafta Genel Kurul gündemine gelmesi beklenen torba yasanın, alt komisyondaki görüÅmelerinde saÄlık çalıÅanlarını sevindirecek bir son dakika deÄiÅikliÄi yapıldı. Aylık mahsuplaÅma hakkı, SaÄlık BakanlıÄı çalıÅanlarına, döner sermayesi olmayan kurumlardaki memura 375 sayılı Kanun Hükmünde Kararname(KHK) ile ödenen ek ödeme tutarında garanti gelir getiriyor

Pendik Orhangazi Mahallesi, Ahmet Yesevi Mahallesi ile Fatih Mahallesiânde kimliÄi belirsiz kiÅi ya da kiÅiler, saat 03.30 sıralarında park halindeki 18 aracı aynı anda benzin dökerek ateÅe verdi. Araçlarda meydana gelen patlamalar üzerine uykularından uyanan vatandaÅlar, araçlarının yanmakta olduÄunu gördü

I have been very interested in functional languages, and I still am, I suppose, but it's pretty obvious to me that to do the work that my company's program does now, functional languages would be a pain. All of them. You'd need extremely skilled people to be able to use them for anything non-trivial, and even then you would have to sweat blood to do things that are easy in the languages made for our kind of software - Java and C#.