My non-fiction reading of late has mostly been in the realms of history or philosophy. It’s been a while since I read a science book, and I think I was starting to feel the absence. So, I grabbed The Vertical Farm off my shelf and jumped in. It’s a crazy seeming idea. Or is it? Build skyscraper farms in the hearts of our urban centers. Why not. We need food. We need jobs. We need somewhere for our waste to go. We need new ways of feeding the massive numbers of people on our planet. Why not build up? Is everything Dr. Despommier suggests possible? Will it all work? Maybe. Maybe not. He comes right out on multiple occasions and says that he doesn’t have all the answers. What he and his grad students came up with are a bunch of ideas which seem like they might work. They’ll take effort, money, expertise, etc. to put into practice. But what he proposes doesn’t seem to be outside of our current technological or resource reach. He’s not proposing something that relies on an assumed advancement that may or may not show up in the next few years. The primary stumbling block for this sort of project seems to be will. Are people willing to do it?
There really does seem to be potential for indoor farming, built within city limits. The ability to control crops, to grow them clean, to reduce water use, waste, and soil depletion. The potential ability to recycle waste and water, creating clean water. The ability to reduce the agricultural footprint on the land, one of the largest sources of a multitude of pollutants. And the potential to create a great many jobs in the places people want to be (cities). Not to mention reducing the vulnerability of our food sources by decentralizing them and securing them inside, and the reduction in fuel consumption and wasted food that goes into getting harvests across vast distances to the people’s plate. The potential benefits are quite astounding, and the potential problems, while not negligible, do not seem insurmountable. But again, it comes down to will. When you have a large part of the population of what was once one of the most advanced cultures on the planet claiming that the environment is perfectly fine and that nothing we do can really damage it, in spite of incalculable amounts of evidence (and common sense) to the contrary, simply because their sports team (I mean political party) tells them that’s what they should think, I don’t have the greatest faith that the will to lead the world in technology and culture is in the heart Americans anymore. I hope I’m wrong. And I know there are plenty of us out there who genuinely think things can be fixed, made better, and advanced again. If only the petty tribalism and superstition can be cast off, there’s no telling what we could do.
In this book, Dr. Despommier sells his heart out on this idea. He clearly believes in it, believes it can lead the way to better, healthier, and more sustainable food production for all the world’s people, even the several billion expected in the next couple decades. But he admits, it’s an idea. It needs to be tested, tried, explored. There will likely be problems he and his people have not foreseen, but there may also be additional benefits, new options and possibilities opened by experimenting. What is sure is that we need to eat. Traditional farming can not sustain our current numbers for long, and can not sustain our expected numbers at all. Pollution levels are building up to potentially catastrophic levels. And one day soon, something will change. Instead of waiting for that to happen, and then suffering the consequences, he proposes we meet that change on our own terms, direct the way things go in a more thoughtful and logical way. Nature is amazingly resilient. As he points out, there are numerous instances where, once left alone, nature has repaired itself in much quicker order than people expected (the Dust Bowl’s rebirth, forests in the North East US, etc.). But the key is leaving nature alone to fix itself. That means more self-sustaining (so called ‘green’) cities. Better public transit, better food distribution, better resource management, etc. (I always find it funny that so called ‘conservatives’ are the most liberal about wasting resources. Every old-timey person knows you don’t shit where you eat [pollution], and you don’t waste what you don’t use). It means an end to farming techniques that have been used and abused since we first stopped roaming the grasslands. It means learning from our mistakes and doing it better. And it means finally admitting that we’re taking a hand in the shaping of ourselves and our world, and we should act accordingly.
It may be up to more forward thinking, or more wealthy and experimental nations to break this new ground. Though that saddens me, like space exploration, I’ll take what I can get. If it’s Dubai, Germany, or China, someone’s going to need to do something soon. I wish it would be the United States. Fifty or sixty years ago, before the religious right’s devastating war on science and reason, it would have been. But now science is feared, facts ignored, and ignorance is celebrated as a virtue (it even has its own genre of music, sinisterly called Country). No wonder we have one of the highest infant mortality rates in the developed world. When a sizable portion of the population not only believes in, but looks forward to an apocalyptic ending of the world (they can keep looking forward to it until the Sun finally expands in another what, six billion years?), how can you get them to plan for the future and for future generations? But again, like with space, someone else doing it is better than it not getting done at all. I want to be proud of American advancement in science, technology, and exploration. But I’ll accept being proud of human advancement in all three.
The book, in its conversational tone, is meant as a discussion starter. He isn’t giving all the answers, but posing open ended questions. He isn’t saying, “this is THE answer.” He’s saying, “this might be AN answer, let’s give it a try, or come up with something better.” He doesn’t ignore the idea of profit, or of our less than altruistic motivations, nor does he condemn them. We are the creatures we’ve evolved to be, and part of that is our hunger for more. As is being learned more and more, doing things for the greater good of all does not mean giving up personal gain. Quality of life today and in the future should be important to all of us. This book is a call to action, to fix or let nature fix, the mistakes of our past, and to learn from them. It’s time to change the way we farm. Time to change the way we feed ourselves and others. Time to stop being a slave to the whims of the environment, and time to stop being an agent of destruction in that environment. There is plenty of room on this Earth (and possibly on countless other worlds), and we have the tools to live together. We only lack the willingness to do it. Read the book for a boost of hope and for some ideas. It’s a starting point, not a finish.
The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century
Author: Dr. Dickson Despommier
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books