Reading “The Vertical Farm,” by Dr. Dickson Despommier made me feel optimistic about the future for the first time in a long time. Despommier proposes to turn cities into sustainable ecosystems where there is no waste; everything is recycled as in nature.
The vertical farm is the foundation of the sustainable city of the future: by bringing our agriculture into the city and off the soil, we can do so many things at once: cut water needs for irrigation (currently consumes 70% of our freshwater use); end the pollution of land and water with pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers; cut energy needs enormously—the transport of food is eliminated, just for starters; purify our grey/black water in the vertical farm system so there is no more sewage discharge into rivers and oceans; return agricultural land to its natural state restoring ecosystems and allowing for carbon sequestration; and eliminate many diseases caused by agriculture, worms and bacterial infections from using human feces as fertilizer, for example.
The book is filled with illustrations of what a vertical farm could look like (none exist today) along with detailed schematics to demonstrate the various functions, like purifying sewage and generating energy. You can see some designs on the Vertical Farm webpage.
I was a child of the 1960’s and loved watching the TV cartoon show “The Jetsons,” showing a typical American family living in the future with jet-cars and robots and all sorts of marvelous technologies. I find myself really wanting to live in a sustainable city of Despommier’s imagining.
Despommier argues that agriculture was always a flawed technology; it just took 10,000 years for that to become obvious. For example, one of the birth places of agriculture, the famed “Fertile Crescent,” is now a desert; centuries of intensive agriculture completely depleted the soil.
The second phase of the agricultural revolution occurred a little over one hundred years ago with the invention of internal combustion machines for plowing and harvesting and agrochemicals to artificially stimulate fertility and suppress weeds and insects. But this only made it more obvious that soil-based agriculture is unsustainable. Despommier cites scientists who believe the Central Valley of California only has another 25-50 years of productivity because the salination of the soil from decades of irrigation is about to reach critical levels.
In addition he gives positive evidence of how quickly over-farmed land can recover. The Dust Bowl is a prime example; 20 years after the land had been reduced to sand dunes it had recovered and was a flourishing tall-grass prairie again. It recovered because it had been completely abandoned. Another example is the forests of the U.S. Northeast. They were clear-cut for agriculture at least three times, Despommier says, but finally the residents realized agriculture was impossible there and the farmers moved to Ohio and westward. The forests grew back and became the basis of a flourishing furniture industry. He also recommends Aldo Leopold’s “Sand County Almanac” for a first-hand account of Wisconsin farmland returning to forest.
So how do we make this future happen? Despommier has a fantasy of a U.S. federal-government sponsored competition among the states to design and build 10 vertical farms. It makes complete sense but of course in our dysfunctional political structure it won’t happen anytime soon. The hope is that a wealthy country in the Middle East, say one of the United Arab Emirates, sees the advantages. They can’t grow their own food in the desert, and they have no fresh water. A vertical farm would solve these problems, and the hope would be that the success of the farm would spur its adoption in countries around the world.
This John Lilly quote, used on one of the book’s chapter page, is apt: “Our only security is our ability to change.”