A particularly brilliant blogger named RMJ remarked last week in a comment thread over at the Crack Den that the penultimate step of every plan to combat global warming seems to be, “…and then a miracle occurs.”
Can’t argue with him on that one. That’s why I’m so excited about this idea, nicknamed “skyfarming” or “vertical farming,” which proposes using environmentally self-sufficient skyscrapers as urban farming centers. The concept’s main proponent, a Columbia University professor of environmental science and microbiology named Dickson Despommier, claims that one hundred fifty of these buildings clustered on a piece of land such as Governor’s Island could make New York City – the largest urban center in the United States – completely agriculturally self-sufficient. Given the environmental impact of shipping foodstuffs over long distances (and the quality control problems that creates, as demonstrated by the recent pet food catastrophe), it’s a tempting vision. Despommier’s grand scheme is to have major metropolitan areas all over the United States adopt his model, and let much of the country’s existing farmland be reclaimed by forests which will help cleanse the air of CO2. The kicker? The technology to make it happen exists right now. There isn’t a single element of the skyfarm that needs to be invented. We know the farm will work. No miracle required. (More on vertical farms here, here, here, and over here.)
While we know the vertical farm will work, its potential impact is uncertain. The big conglomerates like ADM and ConAgra could probably make the switch to vertical farming from traditional methods, but it's not farfetched to imagine opponents of the idea claiming it will devastate the local economies of America’s farm belt. However, given the economic fragility of many agricultural areas and the threat already posed to them by global warming, drastic change there is most likely inevitable. By planning ahead, we may be able to surmount that problem. (Sounds suspiciously like one of RMJ’s miracles, doesn’t it?) Also, much of our farmland produces food for export to regions that have come to rely on our exports – another problem that someone, at some point, would have to address. But it seems to me that it will be a hell of lot easier to deal with problems created by existing technology as opposed to technology no one's thought of yet.
The recent, record-breaking success of France's Train Gran Vitesse ("Fast Train") thrills me for the same reason. It’s not likely the train will run at that speed all the time – although riding on a train doing 350 mph sounds like a blast – it will operate at a significant portion of the speed most commercial airliners travel. And it will do so while carrying over one thousand passengers. Compare that to the 100 – 200 passengers a Boeing MD-80 or Airbus A320 can carry, and all of a sudden the fast train is looking like a serious alternative to our overstressed and exhausted air-travel infrastructure. Japan’s maglev train can carry a similar number of passengers and operate at that extreme speed for an extended period of time. Again, some problems immediately present themselves – there have been protests against the train in France over noise pollution and other issues – but we have always managed to navigate around these difficulties when it comes to airplanes, so I don’t see why we couldn’t do the same with a fast train. Most importantly, the technology exists right now. It's "build it and go." No miracle required.
I lamented in this post that billions of dollars are being invested in developing products for a business model that’s rapidly disintegrating. It’s insane, especially when there are existing technologies that could make a real difference just sitting there waiting to be exploited. Many of us on the less-insane side of the blogosphere wistfully long for some billionaire like George Soros to throw a ton of money at creating a left-wing version of the Richard Mellon Scaife-funded right-wing noise machine. But me? I wish he’d build a sky farm.