You’ve been warned!

I did have a restful Christmas, albeit wrapped in the warmth of Brisbane’s humidity, but in the still of the night reality has a way of breaking through. I’ll begin with the ending of this story, as it were, by quoting what Carl Sagan said about the photograph of Earth taken from Voyager 1 as it left the Solar System:

That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you know, everyone you love, everyone you’ve ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives … Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity — in all this vastness — there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

Here’s the pic:

Voyager pic_4wq9db2n-1368400770_500

That’s from a article by Andrew Glikson done back in May as CO2 levels in the atmosphere of 400 parts per million were recorded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Glikson highlights the changes this implies when the full effects become apparent, according to the paleo record when CO2 levels were similar in the Pliocene:

Global Pliocene temperatures were on average about 2–4°C warmer than pre-industrial temperatures. Those temperatures drove an intense hydrological cycle with extreme evaporation and precipitation. It led to extensive rain forests, lush savannas (now occupied by deserts), small ice caps (about two-thirds of the present) and sea levels about 25 meters higher than at present.

Life abounded during the Pliocene. But such conditions mean agriculture would hardly be possible. The tropical Pliocene had intense alternating downpours and heat waves. Regular river flow and temperate Mediterranean-type climates which allow extensive farming could hardly exist under those conditions.

Glikson emphasises the rate of change, which is under-appreciated. The planet has seen nothing like it in the last 65 million years.

Sixty-five million years ago, the K-T asteroid impact resulted in a rise of more than 2000ppm CO2 and about 7.5°C over a period of about 10,000 years (or about 0.2 ppm/year and 0.00075°C per year). … The CO2 rise rate was an order of magnitude lower than current rate of 3ppm/year.

Then 55 million years ago there was the famous spike in temperature of the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM):

large-scale release of methane drove atmospheric CO2 to near-1800 ppm and temperature rise to about 5°C over a period of 10,000 years. (That’s 0.18 ppm CO2year and 0.0005°C/year.)

Again an order of magnitude lower than current rate of about 3ppm/year.

From past performance mass extinctions can be anticipated.

However, Glikson says carbon emissions may be grimly self-limiting.

It is likely that, before atmospheric CO2 reaches 500ppm, extreme weather events would disrupt industrial and transport fossil fuel-combusting systems enough to lead to reduction of emissions. However, the feedback processes like methane release, forest bushfires and warming oceans will drive CO2 levels further.

I came upon that post via a link in Graham Readfearn’s recent piece on the truly awesome effort we are putting in to rip coal out of Galilee Basin and export coal seam gas through Gladstone. Readfearn describes our effort as “both history defying and future shaping.”

We are acting as though our planet is very common. Indeed there may be as many as 40 billion Earth-sized planets in the Milky Way alone, and 170 billion galaxies in the observable universe.

It’s quite conceivable that there is intelligent life out there, intelligent enough to preserve its own habitat. In human terms Earth is the only home we are likely to have, but in human terms it is a speck in the vast void. Here on the third rock from the sun, one of hundreds of billions of suns in a galaxy 100 million light years across, where that galaxy is a pin prick in the deep, it’s hard to think we matter in the general scheme of things.

It’s all up to us, really.

53 thoughts on “You’ve been warned!”

  1. Brian, that is the best and most potent warning I have ever seen. Thanks for that and all the other posts

  2. Huggy, where have you been?! We’ve missed you. I emailed you but you must have changed your email addy.

  3. Hi Brian,
    Please note the change of email, that one should get me.
    I have been here all the time I simply thought LP had gone away. Been very busy.

  4. I spent a fair while trying to compose a letter to my parents saying “now you’ve retired wouldn’t it be nice if you worked towards saving the planet”, but couldn’t come up with something that I thought would work. There’s surely more to retirement than golf, wine and tourism?

    Unfortunately they react to any suggesting like this with “we refuse to feel guilty”. I haven’t ever managed to get across that working to help people doesn’t have to come from guilt. And they’re well used to me, I started being a greenie when I was about 10.

    Penelope Swales “Legacy”

    oh, and what will be my legacy
    one of the luckiest people in the world
    young and free, young and healthy
    young and wealthy, young and white
    our poorest are still among the affluent

    It’s gone beyond giving something back, this is about having something left when you go.

  5. The average age of Green party members is 53. A lot of the older Greens are in it for the grandchildren.
    Good to see you back Huggy.

  6. Thanks Brian. We as a race (human) are so smart, just look at the good we are capable of, why are we finding this so hard. It must be money/power. So very sad!

  7. Very smart we are but lacking in sapience and sentience, as a species. We could overcome the money/power thing if we didn’t lack those.
    Those of us who have a little bit more sapience than the average just have to keep plugging away, updumbing facebook, writing emails, signing petitions and posting on blogs.

  8. We should also be blockading the upcoming mine in the Galilee Basin, all associated infrastructure and suing governments for failing their fudiciary duties and coal mining companies for negligence.

  9. Or we could pay Getup to do just that Jules. The other side pays their activist groups such as think tanks and lobbyists. We could do the same.

  10. Thanks Brian.
    This is why I keep going on about not waiting for world-wide consensus – but taking the initiative by reducing emissions ourselves right now – and to blazes with those who whinge about the economic effects.
    If Eocene-like weather and climate conditions develop, there won’t be an economy to worry about!

    Salient green @7: Well said.

    Jules @8: No need to go in for old-fashioned ineffective blockades.
    Just point out to the board members and shareholders of the firms involved how much money they are going to LOSE and why they’ll lose it and they’ll do all the blockades your heart desires – for free.

  11. I previously posted this

    on the earlier climate clippings thread – just posting it again here in case it gets missed there. The linked article discusses the responses of some US electricity companies to solar PV and the costs that some are levying, or are proposing to levy, in relation to solar PV. It’s a topic that was discussed on the previous thread briefly.

  12. Brian: You say:

    Life abounded during the Pliocene. But such conditions mean agriculture would hardly be possible. The tropical Pliocene had intense alternating downpours and heat waves. Regular river flow and temperate Mediterranean-type climates which allow extensive farming could hardly exist under those conditions.

    It would be more accurate to say that European type agriculture couldn’t exist.
    On the other hand, Amazonian agriculture might work. Forests where the growth of food producing trees are encouraged. The use of charcoal sequestration to create very productive black soils that held nutrients. Etc.
    I have no idea how many people could be supported on a wetter, warmer world but it is conceivable that we could support more than the current world population.
    This doesn’t mean that the transition wouldn’t be horrendous or become impossible because of wars caused by people trying to move to places where survival is possible. But I do think we need to be careful not to give the deniers easy points of attack.
    Val: I had a look at your Hawaiian link. It is a bit hard to say whether the utility was right to put a limit on solar, trying to defend a profitable status quo or simply lazy. It would be useful to know what percent of power was coming from solar. Keep in mind that the islands probably have independent power systems so it would be easy for a passing cloud to cause rapid changes in the amount of PV power being generated.

  13. Brian: For more on the use of charcoal sequestration see this Wikapedia article on terra petra soils

    Terra preta is characterized by the presence of low-temperature charcoal in high concentrations; of high quantities of pottery sherds; of organic matter such as plant residues, animal feces, fish and animal bones and other material; and of nutrients such as nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), calcium (Ca), zinc (Zn), manganese (Mn).[3] It also shows high levels of microorganic activities and other specific characteristics within its particular ecosystem. It is less prone to nutrient leaching, which is a major problem in most rain forests. Terra preta zones are generally surrounded by terra comum ([ˈtɛhɐ koˈmũ] or [ˈtɛhɐ kuˈmũ]), or “common soil”; these are infertile soils, mainly acrisols,[3] but also ferralsols and arenosols.[4]
    Terra preta soils are of pre-Columbian nature and were created by humans between 450 BC and AD 950.[5][6] The soil’s depth can reach 2 meters (6.6 ft). Thousands of years after its creation it has been reported to regenerate itself at the rate of 1 centimeter (0.39 in) per year[7] by the local farmers and caboclos in Brazil’s Amazonian basin, who seek it for use and for sale as valuable compost.

    You can get more by googling things like “Pre colombian amazonian agriculture” which will yield things like this article

    The Amazon has a long history of human settlement. Contrary to popular belief, sizeable and sedentary societies of great complexity existed in the rainforests of this region. These societies produced pottery, cleared sections of rainforest for agriculture and managed forests to optimize the distribution of useful species. The notion of a virgin Amazon is largely the result of the population crash following the arrival of the Europeans in the sixteenth century. Studies suggest that at least 10-12% of the Amazon’s terra firme forests are “anthropogenic in nature” resulting from the careful management of biodiversity by indigenous people. However, unlike most current cultivation techniques, these Amazonians were attuned to the ecological realities of their environment from five millennia of experimentation and accumulation of knowledge, with a strong understanding of how to manage the rainforest to meet their requirements within a sustainable capacity. They saw the importance of maintaining biodiversity through a careful balance of natural forest, open fields and sections of forest managed so as to be dominated by species of special interest and greatest use to humans.

    Val: What I didn’t say about Hawaiian solar was that the utilities problems could be solved by using more energy storage. The panel owners should also have been ablt convert their system to one that didn’t need to be connected to the grid.

  14. GB the blockade at Doubtful Creek, behind Kyogle, seemed effective on the face of it, and contributed to the price of Metgasco shares falling to 6 or 7 cents each.

    A successful blockade costs the company money. And I agree – losing money is what hurts them.

    John D terra petra seems like awesome stuff. Soil depletion/peak soil has been something some people have banged on about for a few years now and it appears to be gaining traction. If we expect to feed the future populations of the planet while oil becomes more scarce then we need to find better ways to fertilise the ground.

    It may even have a real C sequestration potential.

  15. Some readers here may already be familiar with previous diatribes of mine on other fora, regarding the notion of technology saving humanity through the agency of saving the species by colonising space. The short of it is that this is and always will be nothing more than science fantasy of the most magical thinking sort. It’s the laws of thermodynamics that are the absolute and cruel asymptote to what technology will ever be able to do, and the asymptote is far from the fantasy.

    It’s all about numbers – the things that measure distances, and time, and energy, and that put shape and substance to the laws of nature. A real elucidation is far beyond a simple post, or even a thread, and probably even beyond a single whole dedicated blog, although Tom Murphy has a good go at it.

    John D, on the matter of a sustainable human population, if it were to exist in any form that resembled current Western society it is simply not possible to host more than we have now – not over the scale of centuries and especially millenia into the future. Again, it simply a matter of thermodynamics and numbers, and again it’s the stuff of whole disciplines, but poke around some work on trophic webs – and consider that humans co-opt energy almost ubiquitously from all trophic levels in the biosphere – and you start to see that there’s a problem.

    Oh, we’ve gone along swimmingly (apparently) for a few hundred years at the industrial level, and a few thousand at the agricultural level, but that’s nothing on the scale of ecosystem response and evolutionary selection. Humans are incurring biospheric extinction debt at a staggering rate, and this debt is as inescapable as death and taxes – indeed, it is death and tax in an ecological sense….

    On the matter of terra preta there are many factors that diminish its apparent miraculous utility. Firstly, to gain the benefits of the ‘activated’ state the charring process needs to be at least partially oxidative, which means that not all of the carbon in the hydrocarbon reactant (that is, cellulose) is reduced – rather, it is fully oxidised to CO2.

    There’s also the fact that there is a limited distribution of the climatic and soil conditions that allow the reduced carbon to remain unoxidised over required intervals of time – terra preta is as much a phenomenon of geology and climatology as it is of sophisticated agrarian technology.

    Also, as a sequestration technique the numbers (again) don’t add up. I would invite interested parties to do the research and the arithmetic themselves as an exercise in scientific accounting – work out the efficiency of the reduction process, the volume of cellulose required to counteract a set proportion (say, 10% for example) of human emissions, the putative sources of said cellulose, the structure of the process to reduce this cellulose, and the sinks in which the carbon would be sequestered.

    For bonus points work out the energy required to conduct the process, the energy that could potentially be harnessed if full oxidation were allowed, and compare it to the energy derived from coal, gas and oil – and ask why we don’t/can’t use biomass in place of fossil carbon…

  16. As a subscript I’d like to add that I am a huge fan of char in soil – it’s wonderful stuff and I use it myself with a great deal of enthusiasm.

    The trick is to be realistic about what it can and cannot do…

  17. Bernard J:
    I’m a big fan of char too. 🙂

    The fantasy of colonies in space (as opposed to real space exploration and real base colonies) appeals to the rich-and-powerful. They have the money, power and access to talent and resources that would allow them to become space colonists.
    It is a delusion that authorizes them, in part, to stuff up OUR planet and then move on.
    It gives them the divine right to survive whilst all the undeserving (that’s us) perish in a runaway climate catastrophe.

    The good news is that this is merely a variation of the Elixir Of Life and its related follies.
    e.g., swallowing Mercury certainly did change the length of the partaker’s life!
    A similar fate is likely to befall “gated communities” in space; they won’t become latter-day Noah’s Arks but orbiting bone-yards ….


    Life abounded during the Pliocene. But such conditions mean agriculture would hardly be possible.

    Alright, agriculture as we know it might be impossible but what about other forms of organized food production? From the native gardens of Papua-Niugini to an adaptive permaculture to … what?
    Our planet might become even more stuffed than is commonly thought but with the disasterous changes may well come opportunities to survive and maybe prosper (no, not in money terms because our fragile economic system will cease to exist).
    We have some advantages not available to previous generations – such as a knowledge of genetics, microbiology, meteorology, hydraulics, etc., etc.,
    Yes, science and other forms of complex organized knowledge are easily lost within a generation or two but until it is lost forever we have a very short opportunity to turn vital facts within that knowledge into easily remembered and transferred forms such as songs and poetry.

    I am very annoyed that our future has been stuffed up by the stupid and the greedy – but there are still a few glimmers of hope for the survival of human beings.

  18. On the “what could we do in a warmer, wetter future?” I saw this one the conversion of cellulose to food Long way to go before it is economic but it could be important in a warm, wet future that is producing a lot a vegetation.
    Bernard J, you say:

    on the matter of a sustainable human population, if it were to exist in any form that resembled current Western society it is simply not possible to host more than we have now – not over the scale of centuries and especially millennia into the future.

    Personally, I am in favour of reducing world population because I love the wild environment and being able to get away from crowds. However, I believe that we could bring the rest of the world up to something that has similar quality of life to the best of western world standards. “Similar” doesn’t mean that we can do it without discovering that edible insects can taste better than T bone steak or finding other ways of reducing our footprint.
    My take at the moment is that there is no reason why we can’t make the transition to renewable power using currently available technology. If we have renewable power we can produce renewable transportable fuels, nitrogenous fertilizers,petrochemicals etc. In addition, renewable power allows us to desalinate without creating emissions. It also adds to the practicality of urban agriculture etc. etc.
    Use your imagination.

  19. John D:
    I’m definitely in favour of population reductions – but as the character played by Leo McKean said at the end of the war film Yesterday’s Enemy said, “This is one little bit of population that doesn’t want to get reduced!”

    China’s one-child policy had too many unforseen problems.
    Singapore’s two-is-enough was much better but a hidden flaw in it was that the unfits and the misfits tried to breed like rabbits – so any population control system must apply equally across the whole citizenry.
    Bumping off the oldies, as in Brave New World and Logan’s Run, is a seemingly quick and easy solution (as in the Japanese film The Ballard of Narayama); it is an awfully attractive proposition – until you think it through (and that’s besides what the oldies think of the idea).
    Whatever else is done the first move must be to discourage unrestricted breeding for religious, ethnic or economic growth purposes.

  20. HB

    No doubt its been raised before on this site, but the fact that globally we pour over 3 billion litres of urine into the sea every day continues to astonish me.

    I agree. It’s a classic exemplar of pissing away resources.

    {sorry … couldn’t resist}

    Landfills and putrescible waste more generally are also hollow logs that ought to be better managed.

  21. Graham: The interesting thing is that the birthrate in most developed countries is well below the replacement rate. This is why we had Peter Costello boosting the family allowance to try and reverse this.
    I am a bit old to get enthusiastic about bumping off the oldies but would like the option of being able to decide when living longer is no longer attractive.
    Huggy: Part of the problem at the moment is the big separation between where the pissing is done and where it could be used. It is a major argument for urban farming and the use of closed systems to minimize the need for water and fertilizers. I have read somewhere that, if done properly, it takes about 8 m2 to produce enough food for one person. I like proposals that combine fish tanks, hydroponics insect farms etc.

  22. JohnD: I’m a bit cautious of those numbers because they usually elide the labour cost and exactly what is eaten. It makes sense to sacrifice some of the efficiency of micro-scale agriculture to reduce the size of the peasant class, for instance. Possibly not going so far as broad-scale leveling of agricultural land to allow monocultural megafarms, but I suspect the balance is not “each person cultivates their own 8 square metres”.

    I am somewhat amused that the largest land transformations we practice are likely to be all but invisible to archaeologists. Specifically, the habit of making kilometre upon kilometre of completely flat, 1:400 sloped paddocks so that machines can cultivate the widest possible stripes and thus minimise human input. The main sign of that in even 1000 years time, I suspect, will be the depleted soil and chemical residues.

  23. I’m surprised that better use isn’t made of urban land for agriculture. It’s not as if there isn’t space in those more or less derelict industrial estates to make use of land (and roof space) with good access to water, proximity to transport, labour and even markets. No further land would need to be ruined to do it either.

    I suppose the cost of the land is what makes it prohibitive, but it does seem perverse.

  24. I’m surprised that better use isn’t made of urban land for agriculture.

    Actually in places it is. There is (was maybe) a movement called guerrilla gardening (I think they even made a tv show about it) and another to do with urban forestry based on Masanobu Fukuoka’s ideas. And when I used to take the train from Sydney to Melb years ago, in the western suburbs of Melbourne people had amazingly productive gardens along the back of their fence lines on the empty ground around the trainline. I found out that started with Italian families who couldn’t stand seeing that land going to waste/being unproductive. So i suspect there was a cultural thing that stopped us using “wasteland”.

    While writing this comment I went onto Google Earth and checked a few sites I knew of. They are still there.

  25. Fran: often because the cost is excessive for the people who are inclined to have a go. Guerrilla gardening is popular in some circles (there was even a TV series!) but it’s higher risk than it looks due to the amount of poisoned soil. So the first thing any gardener should do is stump up a few grand for soil tests, on land they have no right to use. The same problem occurs to land owners inclined to grant permission to gardeners. In Melbun there was one community garden next to a major road, which when tested was off the normal scale of testing (parts per thousand rather than parts per million). Council quickly withdrew permission…

    I’ve grown fairly carefully selected crops around Newtown and Marrickville, with some success. By choosing leafy vegetables that are poor at taking up metals and benzenoids from the soil it’s possible to be fairly casual about the soil you’re using. But it’s still important to avoid traffic fumes and dust as far as possible unless you can afford to test the produce. It’s also a good idea to consume the produce irregularly rather than as a staple.

    On the other hand, some of the gardeners I know have been living as freegans for going on a decade now with no obvious symptoms of poisoning.

    The obvious solution is not to poison the land in the first place, but unfortunately it’s cheaper to buy farmland and build crap on it than to rehabilitate brownfield sites. And property developers are a marvelous source of concentrated funding for those in need, where NOOPFs are not (Not On Our Precious Farmland).

  26. Fran, I believe the cost of water to be a significant barrier to urban farming. It’s really not at all sustainable to be growing things with water treated to that level of potability either.
    Another barrier is simply that food is too cheap.

  27. Also, what pushes farmers of semi-urban land is often rates. The local council provides a huge load of services that the farmer doesn’t want but has to pay for. Which makes farming unviable, even if everybody concerned thinks it’s a good idea. But if you exempt farmers from rates, how do you define farming? The problem then is lifestyle blocks and hobby farms, and it’s very practical to rent out land to “girls with horses” and say “see, farming!”. Which strongly favours people not seeking a financial return on their property.

    Christchurch used to have some very good rules on this, but they’ve obviously been overturned by the dictator but were under siege well before that. 25 years ago I worked for a guy who used to get a storm of complaints every srping and summer as he spread chicken manure then sprayed his market garden. People weren’t paying for *that* sort of “rural atmosphere”, thank you very much. Important people. The sort who would buy exactly the smallest plot of land allowed, build exactly the largest permissible house and carry out exactly the minimum amount of “farming”, and had the lawyers to back up those claims. They’d then whine that local food was expensive and hard to find, and whatever happened to the nice little roadside vege stall?

  28. SG: Guerilla farming can make a contribution to food production as anyone who has wandered the alleys of places like Seoul could tell you. However, as you say they use up lots of high cost treated water.
    I was more interested in hydroponics and other closed systems that don’t leak water and nutrients into the water table and may even recover water from the air leaving a closed system. See for example: this Daiwa agricube or rooftop/wall farming or hanging gardens or bigger versions of this kit for combining fish raising and herb growing
    My real dilema is deciding what the best use of roofs, walls should be.

  29. My real dilema is deciding what the best use of roofs, walls should be.

    John D – not being on mains water I think a good use for a roof is catching rainwater. My parents live in an urban area, but still have a small rainwater tank on their block which is a 1/4 acre( or slightly smaller). How much rainwater in Australian cities goes into stormwater drains?

    Walls are an amazing potential resource tho.

    Its possible that rainwater capture, cleaning and storage could work well with vertical gardening in cities. could we even combine rooftop water water storage with vertical gardening and some hydro-power generation?

    And as huggy mentioned earlier – urine is a great fertiliser, is it too much to ask that we take the piss more, and do it usefully?

  30. John D at #28:

    I have read somewhere that, if done properly, it takes about 8 m2 to produce enough food for one person.

    John, I think in the best of all worlds that the figure would an order of magnitude greater – 80 square metres at least. And the effectiveness will be predicated on optimal temperature, water, and nutrient regimes, and on a very frugal and carefully planned vegetarian diet.

    In practice the figure is an order of magnitude greater again, at 700 square metres per person, and the FAO thinks that this is an optimistic estimate. The subject is much discussed on the interweb, but there are some numbers here:

  31. Moz at #35.

    Yes, rates are a killer for small-scale farmers in peri-urban areas. I’ve watched mine double and double again in 8 years, largely because wealthy interstate holidayers came, saw the beauty and the relative cheapness of real estate, and decided that they want a piece of it. The first thing that happens is that rates go up with the real estate market, and then the interstaters start to subdivide to make a bit of profit.

    Next to one of my relatives was a 2 acre small holding that was a wonderful family-supporting endeavour. After a divorce a Queensland architect came along and snapped it up, and almost immediately subdivided it into 5, including about one long and essentially now-useless acre following a stream line and three slightly-less-than 0.25 acre internal lots that are promoted as “green living” when they are now compromised beyond salvation.

    To cap it off, on one of these blocks he’s building a “10 star eco home” which has been touted in the weekend glossies as tres sustainable even though it’s not yet been built – currently it’s a half-constructed shell of Hanson bricks on a continuous concrete slab with plastic insulation piled up in one corner. Apparently the 10 stars and ecological sustainability come from the double glazing and north-facing orientation that will help the house to minimise it’s ongoing energy use, but the fact that the house is loaded down with scores of tons of cement and has alienated a formerly productive plot of land is irrelevant…

    It’s reached the situation where locals can no longer afford to live here, let alone to buy here any more, and the interstaters who are buying up the area are completely oblivious to the fact that with their “sustainable development” they’re displacing the local economic structure and destroying the characteristics that made the area so appealing in the first place.

    It’s one slice in the death by a thousand cuts of productive land.

  32. Our wastes need to be recovered on a municipal scale for efficiency. Black, grey and storm water can be more effectively handled in large quantities for biogas production, extraction of essential nutrients, detoxification(high temp composting of sludge) and re-selling treated water of either potable or for garden use.
    I know some areas of Adelaide are supplied with the two grades of water so I assume it’s also happening in other cities.
    What needs to happen at the same time is a major drive to eliminate pollutants from the sewerage system, starting with industry and then to medical, transport and household wastes.
    So now we have cheaper water for growing things in the city/town and recovery of energy and nutrients. Then all people need is the time to tend a garden and a need – as in food getting scarce and expensive.
    I think my job as an orchardist is safe for a while. Shit money but safe.

  33. SG: The cost of getting to and from water treatment plants is daunting. Like power generation there is a lot to be said for more localized systems. Lots of things are possible if rooftop solar is used to provide the power needed for the type of urban farming I am talking about.
    Bernard J: Google “how much land do you need to feed one person” and you will get millions of hits and a range of values. Keep in mind that most of the figures apply for open land without heating or cooling.

    Details for the Agri cube suggest very high production rates are possible:

    Measuring less than five meters (about 16 feet) in length and 2.5 meters (about 8 feet) wide, Daiwa’s Agri-Cubes are smaller than a twenty-foot equivalent shipping container. An Agri-Cube can be brought to an installation site on the bed of a light heavy-duty truck. A concrete foundation about 10 square meters (108 square feet) in size must be prepared before delivery, along with plumbing and electrical utility hookups. Daiwa claims each Agri-Unit can grow about ten thousand servings of fruits and vegetables each year at an operations cost of about US$4,500, which corresponds to only 45 US cents per head of lettuce.

  34. JohnD: so what’s the cost of infrastructure for that Agri-Cube? As soon as I see “concrete footing” my eyebrows started flying around the room. 90% of the world can’t afford even the foundations for this thing.

  35. Moz: The agricube is merely one example of what might be used to grow food in a developed world city. Big attractions are low space, water, transport and fertilizer requirements. Variations that fit on roofs or are part of walls or housing internals may cost a lot less.
    Other variations may be attractive in remote areas or places with extreme weather or water shortages that prevent crop growing for most of the year (or years on end.)

  36. What I’m getting from this discussion is that the future will resemble Judge Dredd – people will live in “Mega-city One”, surrounded by the “Cursed Earth”.

  37. Johnd: by “extreme weather” and “water shortages” you mean most of Australia, I take it? 🙂

    I’ve seen the aquaculture experiments at Ceres, and a couple of home-scale attempts that ran for a few years. That plus experience across the range of “planter box vege gardens” to “12 hectares of orchard” have made me a big fan of industrial agriculture. So I keep coming back to the labour requirement. I can’t see how many hours a week of direct labour input it takes to run one of those, let alone including research/shopping time.

    Their press release says it costs about 15 person-years of food just to buy the unit ($US70k), plus installation and land cost. Then you need electricity to run the heat pump and other stuff so the running costs are not going to be small. Perhaps the labour cost is not the major problem.

    What I’m thinking about is a roof with a 45° north face (for solar panels) and a much gentler back face on which I could grow veges on terraces. I’m big on soil, and in this case we’d call it “thermal mass”. That gets me away from many of the problems with ground-level gardens in urban areas, at the cost of more weather exposure and having to lift water up. Since I’ll be buying the mineral part of the soil anyway the ease of separation is an advantage.

  38. And John, sorry if it seems as though I’m picking on you, I’m trying not to. I’ve seen a lot of these ideas abandoned over the years so I’m keen to kick them apart before people get too involved. It’s not about how shiny the idea looks now, it’s what it looks like half way through its design life. And at the end of it.

    For the AgriCube, the payback period seems to be around 25-30 years. More if they’ve bought a cheap heat pump that will need replacing before then, or expensive water pumps (that just increases the replacement cost IME). Hopefully that means a design life of 40 years or more. So the question is: how well will one work after 20 years? After 40? After 50? What parts need to be replaced before 40 years, and how standardised are those parts? (ie, will you be able to buy them in 40 years time?) It’s hard to get any of this info from a quick net search, but the pictures are not promising – there’s lots of PVC pipe and not a lot of stainless steel.

  39. The premise of (modern :)) guerilla gardening is exactly the opposite, BTW. The idea is never to put more in than you can afford to lose, especially never in one place. That way you can afford the inevitable losses and cycles of enthusiasm. Get keen in the spring, dig a whole lot of places up and plant stuff, weed and water it through the summer, see what happens.

    The Community Garden movement tries to mitigate this by having a group of people involved. IME it works better if you have a few committed people who can see the garden from where they live, so they’re more likely to see the daily maintenance. Individual plots work if you charge for membership, otherwise they just tie up land for little benefit (most will be taken up by people who are never seen again). But again, it’s cyclical, you need a new owner group every 5-10 years because people get sick of it and move on. Sure, retired people will often last longer than that, but don’t count on it (and it’s not legal in Australia for them to leave their bodies to the garden. Estates yes, bodies no). And don’t even think about a community garden in a strata block, that’s just a way to start fights. People need to be able to walk away from the garden when it doesn’t work for them, not be chained to it by the house they live in.

    Our ambition is for a house with enough space that we can have a couple of chickens and a bit of garden.

  40. Moz: I need to be challenged – it helps to refine my thinking and/or understand what questions need to be answered.
    I grew up in the 1950’s when the mindset of adults had been formed by their experience of the great depression and W2. Because of this, the norm was a backyard vegie patch, a few fruit trees and, in many cases, a few chooks. The problem with this approach was that the spare land and spare water is no longer available. (This doesn’t mean that lawns and ornamental shouldn’t be converted to a source of food as well as ornamentation.)
    I would agree that a stand alone system like the agricube is a questionable investment for somewhere like Aus. We can grow crops in most parts of Aus all year as long as we have water. It might be a better investment in locations that have a shortage of water and/or with high transport costs from the nearest agriculture area and/or producing high value costs out of season.
    What I do think is that incorporating this type of technology into new or existing buildings may make better sense. The use of existing walls, roofs etc may save costs, the farm will make buildings more pleasant to live and work in and keeping the farm going can be part of daily recreation rather than paid work.

  41. John, there is some working being done on larger-scale urban agriculture and some of that makes sense. A lot of it is architects and designers drawing pretty pictures of vertical farms without ever having ventured out of the CBD, but some of it comes from people seriously looking at (for example) how slum dwellers in megacities can feed themselves. Right now a lot of those people eat food waste, if you define food quite liberally, and guerilla garden for their lives. Organising that even a little could make a huge difference, but the sort of changes needed are more like land tenure and physical security rather than toys for the rich.

    In terms of the rich world, I think it’s more a matter of not destroying the farms we have first, then working out how to build more. The expulsion of the market gardeners from Botany and Randwick in Sydney is a disgrace, as is the ongoing conversion of farmland into suburban wasteland. Replacing those with green walls is all very well, but unless someone can make a living out of growing food on them they will be, at best, decorative features (ie, yet another impost paid for by the building residents).

    The trouble is I haven’t seen anyone talk about how to harvest food from a multistory green wall, let alone any form of mechanical cultivation. So it all comes back to “whatever you want, as long as the labour is free”. On a societal level, that means either using currently un(der)utilised labour (which we have a lot of), or shifting existing productive labour into green walls. But given the skills required, perhaps some of the former farmers could be encouraged back.

    The problem with mechanising it is that while no-one really likes the farmer over the road driving her tractor round at cock-fart, they’re going to like it a great deal less when the farmer is right outside their bedroom window.

  42. Moz: I can’t quite see why you would need mechanical cultivation when we are talking about growing lettuce etc. where the garden consists of a poly pipe with water flowing along the bottom. I also can’t quite see the problem when the vegie patch has become a few pipes running along the wall. I am old enough to remember how hard it was digging up the garden with hoe and shovel – so I am not particularly concerned about the labor problem.
    I don’t know what the harvest plan for fruit trees growing up a wall is but I would point out that trees can be pruned to spread along a wall or wire placed to allow harvesting from windows or balconies.
    If you have a look at the roots of lettuce sold at supermarkets it is obvious that they are all grown hydroponically because it competes with traditional lettuce growing (which we did when I was a boy on our farm.
    This conversation started with a discussion of production per m2. This link claims that

    Through this (hydroponic) technique, farmers can get between 450 and 550 tons of vegetables per acre, compared to the average yield of 15 tons per acre from traditional farming.

    That’s at least 30 times.

  43. John, mechanisation normally reduces labour cost. And when you’re talking about abseilers rather than unskilled labour using less of it is going to be important. Or you could just put walkways every 2m up the green wall. But since cost is the driving factor here, I suspect some kind of moving platform will end up cheaper.

    I’ve been assuming that to provide bulk food the goal is to grow more than salad greens. Those are usually chosen because they’re easy to grow hydroponically, which translates to cheap. And as you point out, profitable.

    Trellising fruit trees to grow vertically would be quite do-able, but fruit trees require regular servicing. During the fruit season they’re wind sensitive, and spraying them by hand on a wall would be nightmarish. Mind you, an apple falling off a tree that’s 5 stories up would also be nightmarish.

  44. Moz: The 20th century was the transport century. The advances between the start and finish of the century were unprecedented. Speed, cargo size, air travel, manpower per tonne km and…. This went hand and hand with economies of scale. So we now have bigger factories and much longer transport routes. We have tomatoes bred to resist transport damage and…
    But what I see now are some reversals of this process. The internet allows more and more people to spend time working at or close to home instead of hours a day travelling. Power is being produced at the home instead of being transported from a centralized power station to the home over hundreds of KM.
    I think the same may become important for food production. It won’t necessarily be a matter of trying to produce the food we eat now close to home. It may well become a matter of learning to like the food that can be conveniently grown in the urban environment. (The food I eat today is radically different from what I was brought up on.) It may be a matter of breeding plants and animals to suit the sort of technology I have been talking about. Above all the commercial model may have changed in much the way that rooftop solar has changed the power generation model.
    Surely you can solve some of the problems you keep bringing up.

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