Vertical farms: the greatest hope for cities, or a band-aid on a sucking chest wound?

I sometimes find myself making negative comments about vertical farming. This happened again today, and the facebook friend to whom I responded replied very openly with, “Well, what then? Green belts?”

So rather than continue my terse and impatient crypticism on social media, I will try to respond comprehensively. My analysis, as with all analyses, rests on a few assumptions:

Our planet is finite, and receives no new inputs important to human timeframes, except for sunshine.

Since the planet is finite, everything on it is also bounded. Nothing can grow forever, and nothing can be extracted forever.

Please note that I said extracted, which is different than harvested. We extract nonrenewable resources, like oil, coal, copper and iron. We harvest renewable resources, like apples, wheat, chickens and salmon.

We can harvest extractively. So, if we catch too many salmon, the salmon cannot renew. This causes depletion, extirpation and extinction. But if we harvest less than can be renewed, that harvest is sustainable.

For all that people like to justify their behaviour by throwing their hands in the air and saying, “But what does sustainable even mean anyway?” it has a very simple meaning. It means, able-to-be-sustained. That means essentially forever, which to humans is probably 1000 or 10,000 or 100,000 years. Whatever.

That nothing can be extracted forever is basic math. Even if our planet was made of solid gold, we could only extract a maximum of one planet’s worth of gold from it.

But nothing is solid, gold, or anything else. Everything is mixed up with other things: coal is mixed with rock, fish are mixed with ocean.

Being practical, we like to start with extracting the richest, most concentrated deposits of a resource, whether that is coal, copper or whales.

We start with the easiest, and then we make some specialized tools which help us really increase productivity—so then we roar through the easy stuff, and start working on harder stuff and that slows us down a little. And then we slow down a lot. This is Peaking; the most famous example is Peak Oil. This is not a theory, it is math.

The shorthand for this in our daily life is the 80/20 rule. 80% of the work gets done with 20% of the effort—and the last 20% of the work takes 80% of the effort. That is nice, but it really is probably more like the first 40% takes 10% of the effort and the last 60% takes 90% of the effort—except the last one or five or ten percent is actually just impossible for us to extract no matter what we try.

So, if we have a field of potatoes and the desire for a plate of french fries, we can easily dig a few spuds by hand and we don’t care if we miss a few. But if want to maximize our profits by harvesting as many of our potatoes as possible, the 80/20 rule begins to bite. It seldom makes sense to pay humans to harvest 100% of the tubers; the payback on finding the last few—or the last many—is just not worth the labour costs.If you can remove the wage cost, harvesting some of the last few makes sense again; this is the basis of gleaning. I strongly—deeply—recommend Agnes Varda’s film The Gleaners and I.

Faced with the high cost of labour it seems to make sense to build a potato harvesting robot. An automated—or lightly supervised—machine can outowork humans, and never asks for holidays or a raise. So that is great. We harvest more spuds and waste less food. We “spare” humans the toil of harvesting.

But at what cost?

The machine runs on oil, a non-renewable resource. It is made of steel, and aluminum, and copper, and fabulously rare minerals, all non-renewable. Furthermore, all of those materials were extracted with machines that run on oil, were refined in coal furnaces, and manufactured with more oil or coal.

And all the extraction, refining and manufacturing machines were made of materials extracted with oil, refined with coal, and manufactured with coal or oil. It is like a terribly polluting—and unsustainable—M.C. Escher drawing.

If something is unsustainable, well that means it is unable to be sustained. All we have left to discuss is the date of the funeral. To be fair, the funeral may be years, decades, or centuries in the future—but if you see a black suit or dress on sale, you might want to snap it up…because if you use non-renewables at any rate, they will eventually effectively disappear.

Lastly, I want to mention the principle of bankruptcy. If you spend more than you make, you go out of business. If a coyote spends more calories chasing rabbits than it earns when it catches rabbits, it starves to death. If a plant transpires more water through its leaves than it collects through its roots it wilts, and can die.

And if it takes more energy to drill for oil than you get out of the oil, you stop drilling.

The Beverly Hillbillies could spend one barrel of oil energy and extract 100 barrels of oil for sale—this is the magic of fossil fuels, they are fantastically concentrated. One gallon of gas contains the energy of something like two weeks of human labour.

But of course we burned through that pretty fast, and more recent drilling is closer to a 30:1 ratio. The oilsands are as low as 3:1—that one barrel of energy nets only two more.

Some biofuels may even be negative, they use more energy than is extracted. They exist, like industrial potatoes, thanks only to a massive, historical and onging subsidy of oil energy. Without the built industrial infrastructure and overseas resource wars, they would wither away.

And the same goes for our green darlings, solar, wind, tidal, et c. They are all harvested with machines of non-renewable materials mined, refined and manufactured with oil and coal. They are not able to be sustained.

So maybe I can talk about vertical farms now.

The notion is that dense cities can grow some of their food and cut down food-miles, the impact of transporting foodstuffs from field to plate. Secondly, by growing up perhaps we can avoid growing out, and thereby leave more land for other creatures. And thirdly, by hermetically sealing out insects, the use of pesticides can be hopefully eliminated.

Well, local eater though I am, I know food miles are not the greatest impact of food, by far. About 4% of the impact of your food lies in transporting it to your plate.

And what does the remaking of a farm on the vertical plane cost?

Farming benefits from rain for the plant, and the blessed sunshine, and the sweet soils, full of worms and bugs and bacteria and fungi, all of which add fertility.

Vertical farms build a concrete box to keep all that away, and so they must replace it all with lights and pumps and synthesized chemicals. Mined, refined and manufactured. And then after the manufacturing, the lights and pumps must be operated with power generated from coal, gas, hydro and nuclear. And those power plants are mined, refined and manufactured…

So everything that nature gives for free, a vertical farm excludes and replaces with an expensive, non-renewable, unable-to-be-sustained system that relies on subsidies from resources kept affordable thanks to foreign wars. In no way do they produce as much energy as they consume. And so, ultimately, they are destined for starvation.

Now, there are a few things that consume more than they produce which we continue to subsidize—babies spring to mind—so maybe we could choose to subsidize vertical farms because we like fresh lettuce, and want space for wildlife.

Maybe, But they do run on non-renewable materials and energy, and nobody who knows anything about manufacturing thinks that is going to change anytime soon, or that it is necessarily possible at all. I don’t find the idea of long-term energy subsidies for vertical farms to be very credible.

The use of non-renewables is not-able-to-be-sustained. And the use of renewables to grow food is, well, farming. As in fields. With sun and rain.

Well, what then? Well, this is not a problem that can be fixed, it is a predicament to be carried.

The question itself contains the perspective of Empire. Everything must bend to us, everything must work out for us, our way of life is not negotiable. We have upwards of seven billion souls on this planet, and they all want iPhones, therefore we need vertical farms.

History shows that empires cannot escape the math of bankruptcy, and so far they have all fallen. The only way out of this without confronting our desires to continue our highly subsidized life of ease and privilege is to seek a Higher Power—a miracle is needed.

For the rationalist problem solvers among us, that higher power is usually science and technology.

For example, if somebody develops a nuclear reactor that can run on pocket lint, we will be essentially liberated from constraints on our energy use. Realistically, that does nothing about the many other non-renewables except increase the length of time we can scratch around in the dust for crumbs. But most-importantly, it is a hell of a way to plan for the future. We are literally saying, “We don’t want to deal with reality, so we are going to continue doing whatever we want, and trust an angel will bring us a miracle.”

This church points to past innovations as proof we will science our way out of this jam. This ignores history. Various forms of fossil fuels, for example, have been known for millennia—they just weren’t seen to be useful. Many centuries later, given a huge untapped resource, well-known and lying around in plain sight, we did develop the massive burning of oil products that finally docked the whaling fleet. Or at least that is the standard narrative. This site says turpentine, from pine trees, was in short supply due to the Civil War, so Camphene was superseded by kerosene. Government subsidies for fossil fuels may have also been in play from the very first days of the industry.

Now, if they hadn’t developed petroleum products, we would have stopped using whale oil anyway for the simple lack of whales. That is the math. Whales were in steep decline before the first oil well was drilled.

But what we don’t have today is a massive store of concentrated energy, lying around in plain sight. We do have several kinds of very diffuse energy: nuclear, solar, wind, etc. Because of the energy, materials and infrastructure required to concentrate that diffuse energy, these have a much lower Energy Return on the Energy Invested than a nice barrel of oil.

This means there is less surplus. If your investment returns 7% instead of 5%, you have more surplus and you can do more things. If you have less surplus, you can do fewer things. So, in a world of diminishing returns on our energy investments, in a world in which we have and will continue to have less energy to spend, why would we build a box to keep nature’s free services away from our plants, only to replace those very things with energy-hungry lights and machines?

This is not able-to-be-sustained. And so it will not be sustained. That is the math.

Now, in the short term, we may get caught up in the Green Fever, and slap vertical farms in some parkades and vacant lots. It is a short-sighted sort of math, but it is good-hearted. Vancouver’s first vertical farm was bankrupt a year after it opened.

For myself, I am interested in longer-term thinking. I am not interested in advocating for systems like vertical farms, which will consume enormous amounts of concrete, steel, copper and plastic, and will eventually go out of business. Why would we sink precious resources into a system that cannot be sustained?

There is real, important and durable work, sustainable work, that needs to be done. If we want to increase the food grown in cities, start replacing decorative street trees with fruit and nut trees. Advocate for systems that manage our food scraps with chickens instead of with diesel trucks and loaders. Support your peri-urban farmers for your tender greens, and ask your grocer to contract with local farmers. Start thinking about what is able to be sustained. Think about what we can have, not what we want to have.

About a century ago, New York City received most of its food from within seven miles. So yes, cities need green belts. This is a durable model that has worked for humanity over the long term. Most importantly, traditional intensive farms can produce more food than they require to operate. They can be sustainable.

Ours is far from the first civilization to face the fact that our systems cannot grow forever—nothing can.If you want to be popular at a dinner party, try talking about how not only is growth not sustainable, but the environmentalist’s darling, the Steady State is also not sustainable. Vertical farms are the answer to the wrong question. The question is not how many technologies we can deploy to resist change, no matter what cost to ourselves and the ecosphere. The question how do we live joyfully within our fair share of this planet.

***EDIT*** This just in from Salon. There are some actual studies with actual numbers in this article. Conclusion? Vertical “farming” is a giant energy loser.


  1. Rueben:

    You seem like a nice guy but your thinking and comments about agriculture reflect that you don’t understand it very well. Your examples are not factual and often miss the key point. A few examples: you mention the 80/20 rule in a context of potato harvesting and talk about robots for harvest as a potential negative. In fact virtually all potato farmers, including most small organic farmers, use machine to harvest potatoes and they get substantially more than 80% of the crop on the first pass at a relatively low cost. You mention that over harvesting is the key reason we are suffering diminishing salmon harvest. Actually the more important reasons are loss of habitat and water diversion, not harvest. Your example of “over extraction” does not makes sense as the example you use to illustrate it is not accurate. This is true of most of your points and comments. You site the “Peak” phenomena as another example of what going on. The best known example is Peak Oil, which turned out to be a complexly false alarm after the hysterical carping of its adherents over the past 8 years or so. There is a oil glut now and it looks like its not going away for a very long time, if ever. Lastly, vertical farming is total bullshit from a food and ecologically point of view. You dance around without having the conviction to fall a spade a spade. It uses insane amount of resources (energy, aluminum,chemicals, plastic, to name a few) and only produces high-priced leafy greens used to garnish the plate or adorn a salad. Completely not-renewable, capital and resource intensive, perfectly suited for an industrial, corporate farming model. Vertical farming is un-needed and an ecological and social disaster.

  2. Your description of our sustainability ‘predicament’ seems very accurate and articulate, to me. I think the only thing on Earth that is really sustainable is life itself. People live and die, civilisations arise and collapse, species evolve and go extinct, but life as a whole goes on, adapting to whatever the planet throws at it, at the expense of the individual components.

    Why has life persisted on Earth for several billion years? I think it’s because absolutely everything it relies on is recycled. Geology has something to do with that – for example, carbon is recycled through the Earth’s crust on a timescale of many millions of years – but mostly it’s because every output of life is an input for something else. Plants extract minerals from the soil, and the leaf-fall nourishes new plants. Dead bodies of animals provide food for other animals, bacteria, fungi etc. I’m not aware of any ecosystem where a finite resource is extracted and never re-used. And of course, all the recycling is sustainable because the rate is limited by the flow of available energy (mostly sunlight).

    So all we have to do, to make human civilisation indefinitely sustainable, is to make it a closed system where absolutely everything is recycled and the only sources of energy are inexhaustible, such as sunlight and wind. Simple! The trouble is, it’s hard to think of a realistic civilisation that fits these criteria and looks anything like modern high-tech industrial civilisation. Machines cannot fuel themselves, repair themselves, replace themselves when they wear out, and do it all on flows rather than stocks of available energy. Only life can do that. Plants are the only technology that can harvest sunlight and be completely recycled (burnt for heat, eaten, composted) and animals are the only technology that can do work and repair themselves, be completely recycled, reproduce themselves etc.

    Will we ever invent artificial machines that can do all the things life can do? I doubt it, but that’s what we’d need to do. Without that, if we want sustainability then we can only go back to living with nothing that isn’t 100% organic and natural.


    • Thanks for reading John. If you haven’t read McDonough and Braungart’s Cradle to Cradle, I think you would enjoy it very much—though, for all the reasons you list, Braungart admitted to me their public proselytizing of a fully recyclable industry must be tempered by greatly reduced consumption.

  3. Ruben,
    What a nice succinct summary of the dilemma we find ourselves in on a finite planet. In my own awkward way I’ve tried to address this with friends and family. Maybe I’ll just print out your post and hand it to them?

    Like Clem, I just discovered your blog by way of Chris over at Small Farm Future. I’ll keep checking in on a regular basis.

    • I am glad you liked this Brian, and, as I am a new fanboy of Chris, glad his other fans are finding their way over here.

      I do have a newsletter sign-up over on the sidebar—the last one was probably six months ago, so I won’t spam your inbox. Or, perhaps you are a bit of refusenik like me, and still use RSS feeds.

      Your blog is also very lovely, lyrical and contemplative. I appreciate that you write from and of your place, and it is a place that is very unfamiliar to me. You are now in my RSS.



  4. Ruben, Thank you.

    Beautifully, clearly presented. I have been trying to spread this message for several years, and this synopsis is extremely share-worthy.

    I have come to accept that my environmentalist friends have largely been conditioned to uncritically accept that solar panels, wind turbines, vertical farms, self-driving cars, etc. will “save” us. Any attempts to inject some critical reasoning into the discussion invariably brings up the responses: ‘well, we have to do something!” or “what’s your solution?” But every once in a while I get a glimmer of understanding, and so I plow on 😉

    (BTW, I love the name of your blog… it echoes how my husband and I have looked at our own life…)

    • Thank you for reading Adrienne, I am glad you liked this.

      It sounds like the conversation you have with your friends is the same conversation that is unfolding in these comments and on facebook, and that is worthy of another whole post—though I would really be retilling soil John Michael Greer has already gone over.

      That conversation shows the confusion of the urgency to solve the problem with our capacity to solve the problem.

      People say things like, “we have to do this, or we are going to fry.” But in saying that, they refuse to consider one of the options they have just presented that very second.

      We might fry.

      Now, “fry” has a lot of connotations which I don’t subscribe to. I would tend to think we are going to lose a lot of cultural complexity, and a lot of people are going to die, mostly of complications of malnutrition. I expect a great increase in nomadic sheepherding.

      So, for us, a great loss of complexity makes it likely that many more people are going to need to be involved with food production and preservation. I don’t know when that will become obvious, but I do know the longer we have to spread those skills through our culture, the softer the descent will be for many people.

      Since apocalypse is not a great selling point, we focus on the joy, beauty, meaning, richness and deliciousness of our hand-made life.

      So, when they say, “we have to do something” their actions betray the only acceptable “something” is one that allows us to continue on exactly as we are. We must switch to renewables so we can continue watching kitten videos.

      Well, growing beans and raising chickens is doing something. And furthermore, you feel more amazing at the end of the day than you did after watching all the kitten videos in the world.

      Yes, we do have to do something. Start with a garden.

      Anyhow, obviously I am not telling you anything you don’t already know. Thanks for reading, and come back soon!

      • I actually had to stop reading The Archdruid Report. I followed the blog faithfully for about a year, until I realized that the mental state I was adopting was negatively affecting my health. I could only carry the collapse of human civilization on my back for so long…

        I’m much less of a ‘collapsatarian’ now. Maybe because my husband and I are older (60 and 55, respectively) and have no children, we aren’t really looking that far into the future—so what concerns us mostly is learning how to occupy the planet in a kinder, gentler fashion. Gardening is definitely the base for much of this.

        We are very fortunate to live on Lopez Island the San Juans (aka U.S. Gulf Islands ;-), where people value community & simplicity over making money & buying crap. We’ve got a number of folks here in their mid-20s to mid-30s who are seriously, seriously working to get back to the land. It’s inspiring to see these young people work their asses off farming and making stuff and having kids and building little cabins in the woods. It’s my goal next year to spend more time out in this amazing community and less time online, though I’m adding a few new blogs to my RSS feed (along with yours) to keep the mental muscles in shape.

        Blessings on your and yours, and have a Happy Solstice!

        • Thank you for this. I honestly don’t know if we have this in our boxes of books already—my wife was just wondering how long it would take us to read through our stacks if that was all we did. Winter work!

          Happy Solstice to you as well.

  5. Can we talk about fertiliser use in “traditional intensive” farms? I read somewhere that much of the increase in farm output since, like, the 19th century has been due to nitrogen either mined or produced with non-renewable energy sources, which would complicate the sustainability argument a bit. Of course modern farm practices and scientific understanding will help but…

    • Thank you for giving this your attention Jarek.

      The guano trade began in the early 1800s, and the Haber-Bosch nitrogen synthesis expanded after WWI. I am not sure to what extent guano was used on farms, as opposed to being used in the elite’s conservatories and whatnot.

      As far as no-input farming, please enjoy this post by Chris Smaje, who is my latest intellectual crush. He talks about “leys”, which I guess is British for letting land lie fallow and unused.

      But I also want to point out the danger of your question, Jarek. Too often it becomes, “Can we talk about fertiliser use in “traditional intensive” farms?” Uh oh, they use fertilizer? Oh well, we might as do Chemical Industrial Monocropping then.

      That is probably not what you are saying at all, but that is often where the conversation goes—it is going that way on the facebook post right now.

      My point is that the math matters. If something cannot be sustained, it simply won’t be sustained. That means we humans must fit within the capacity of our world, and if we don’t, some of us will die.

      This is of course, human history. The oil-fuelled excesses of the last century have allowed to believe we have defeated nature, but all we did is add more numbers to the calculation.

      • Yes, I didn’t intend to go full-out industrial Monsanto, apologies if the initial comment came out like that. Just the “traditional farm” bit jumped up at me. It seems that we’ve departed truly “organic” farming closer to the Middle Ages.

        No doubt we can and should and need to do better than fossil-powered hamburger-based diets. No doubt improved scientific understanding will help us some. No doubt a massive readjustment needs to happen.

        But – to get on my techno-utopic soapbox, and sorry about being all “you’re wrong” in comments of your own blog – I think you’re a bit dismissive of technological developments.

        It’s problematic to depend on that to happen, to need new technology sometime in the future to save future us from current us. But while your traditional farms are all good for Vancouver Island or green and pleasant England, on Iceland they mean a diet of fish and sheep with an orange for Christmas. This on an island where water at 80 or 90 degrees Celsius flows out of the ground. For a few hundred years the water was used for swimming. Then we developed technology and Iceland is essentially energy neutral. The same can be true of a sunny desert country, or a windy wet one. Yes, conserve, and don’t waste it, and don’t insist on oranges and bananas every day – but don’t avoid technology because we might run out of something in 10000 years – especially if it’s recyclable like steel or aluminium anyway.

        The guano to Bosch process switch is illustrative. We went wild on guano, and that’s not much to be proud of. It wasn’t sustained. We ran out. But the science and the technology progressed, so it didn’t matter in the big picture. We know we can make nitrogen fertilizers with hydroelectricity for when gas becomes pricier (maybe that will even be because pollution externalities are priced in, not only because it ran out!). I wouldn’t bet on this being the last development ever.

        I have a quibble about the fossil fuels being concentrated as well. Part of the reason fossils didn’t get used originally is because we didn’t need to use them, because the amount of energy we could consume was largely fine with locally grown trees. You don’t have to dig or drill for lumber, and coal fireplaces are a pain to get going. We went through a phase where bigger and more concentrated was better, and so the concentrated energy sources were worth it. We don’t know that concentrated will continue to be the case – it’s cliche but it’s easier to have personal networks now without being in physical proximity to more people due to the internet – diffuse renewables is not necessarily going to be a problem. Today, various forms of energy are well-known but not seen to be all that useful – lots of solar irradiance, stagging amounts of energy within the atmosphere in storms and prevailing winds, large tidal forces – so hard to get with our current technology! And if we can do renewables well, we will not have less energy to spend.

        And if we do have energy, we can more easily – I would say more sustainably but don’t want to invoke your math ire 😉 – live where food cannot be easily grown by traditional means. Just inland B.C. has a ton of empty space, to say nothing of Canadian north. That is a good value for research on enclosed food production, I think. Well, or we could convince everyone to stop having children.

        Not to end on a disagreement: I enjoy your blog – found it through the 2013 Spacing repost of One Planet Vancouver series and subscribed to the RSS straight away – thanks for writing!

        • Ah! I am glad you enjoyed the One Planet Vancouver post. I look back on that now (written in 2007) as hopelessly dreamy, but I am still quite proud of it, and still spend a lot of time arguing for some of the very basic concepts I wrote about in it.

          1) I would like to hear more about what your thoughts are on departing organic closer to the Middle Ages. Guano wasn’t until several centuries after that, and guano would still count as organic…

          2) Please don’t worry about disagreement. I write this blog to force myself to organize my thoughts on these topics, and I appreciate being challenged on my assumptions and logic.

          3) I am not anti-technology, in fact, I would heartily recommend Ursula Franklin’s book, The Real World of Technology. I am a trained Industrial Designer, which is the field of design concerned with mass-production. Basically, I got into that field wanting to continue the Modernist project of producing beautiful and durable goods that everybody could afford. Obviously I don’t do that work anymore, but it not for a dislike of technology. I love machines, tools, and human ingenuity.


          a) I have also developed a love of the complex beauty and mystery of the “natural” world. Yes, we could look at an ecosystem as a “natural technology” but that would be incomplete. That would just be a helpful simplification so we can wrap our brains around what nature accomplishes at room temperature, without thumbs or machines. I believe natural systems are too complex for us to understand, and especially too complex for us to intervene in without causing impact, or with controllable impacts.

          That doesn’t mean we can’t and shouldn’t enter into collaboration with nature, as we do with organic farming. But I don’t think we will ever be able to predict with great certainty how a plant will react, how a season will go, why one seed thrives and another doesn’t.

          Humility is our friend here.

          b) It is important to understand that I don’t hate solar panels, or geothermal generation, or whatever. But to put it simply, I don’t think we can predict what the next 50 years will bring, except I think it will be tough. So, for my personal life, I am trying to live simply and joyfully—and flexibly.

          But I see my most important work as preserving knowledge and skills for my child and future generations.

          I guess it is obvious that the knowledge and skills I think are important are not things like programming apps and changing the ringtone on your phone.

          Basically, I think we are headed back to the Middle Ages. I don’t think this because I want to, I think this because I think that is the math. So, if we live in places where food can’t easily be grown, well then, there will be a lot fewer of us living there. Iceland? A lot fewer. Deserts? A lot fewer.

          I say math, but that is not quite the right word. There isn’t really a right word, but we could say “inevitability” or “fate” or something like that.

          So, why do I think this?

          I think there are four factors (please do read the links when you have a chance):

          Diminishing returns on complexity causes collapse
          Collapse typically rebounds or overshoots to the low side
          We do not have the mental or social capacity to avoid collapse
          •Previous empires had the level of complexity allowed by firewood. We have a level of complexity allowed by fossil fuels. That means our collapse will have quite far to fall.

          So, my end conclusions from those four factors is that a simple life with a large component of DIY food is a real good idea. 🙂

          And it will be the only choice in the decades and centuries to come.

          Finally, here is my major point of disagreement with your “techno-utopic sandbox”:

          You list several things: synthesizing fertilizers, harvesting solar and tidal power, harvesting geothermal, and using this harvested energy to grow food in less fertile areas.

          The thing is, we can’t have these things just because we want them real bad. In order to have any of those things, we need a global mining, refining and manufacturing system, and we need the energy to run it.

          In order to have that, four factors must be satisfied, the technological, material, social and economic.

          I) We do have the technology for windmills and solar panels.
          II) We might have the material, like copper and steel, but we don’t have the energy, and we don’t have the technology for energy sources like thorium reactors.
          III) We do not have the social ability to redirect our resources to a renewable build-out at a sufficient scale. That would utterly destroy our current economy.
          IV) We don’t have the economic capacity. We are in a global economic contraction right now, likely caused by the physical constraints on our energy supply. That will continue forever, until we collapse below the energy supply line.

          I tried to explain this (with many more links) in this facebook comment from yesterday.

          But, if I could have you read one link from all of this, it would be this one.

          I think the most fascinating paragraph from this post is:

          “The difference in energy concentration between input and output, it bears repeating, defines the upper limit of complexity. Other variables determine whether or not the system in question will achieve that upper limit. In the ecosystems we call human societies, knowledge is one of those other variables. If you have a highly concentrated energy source and don’t yet know how to use it efficiently, your society isn’t going to become as complex as it otherwise could. Over the three centuries of industrialization, as a result, the production of useful knowledge was a winning strategy, since it allowed industrial societies to rise steadily toward the upper limit of complexity defined by the concentration differential. The limit was never reached—the law of diminishing returns saw to that—and so, inevitably, industrial societies ended up believing that knowledge all by itself was capable of increasing the complexity of the human ecosystem. Since there’s no upper limit to knowledge, in turn, that belief system drove what Catton called the cornucopian myth, the delusion that there would always be enough resources if only the stock of knowledge increased quickly enough.”

          So, physical limits determine the absolute upper limits of our society. Knowledge can help us get closer to those limits, but not past them.

          And what it comes down to is, our entire manufacturing system, which will be needed for installing renewables, runs on oil and coal. I have never heard anybody say there is any hope of having a global solar manufacturing system.

          That oil and coal is depleting, and we will not be socially capable of diverting our current energy use to an emergency manufacturing project.

          And therefore our culture will collapse under the burdens of energy starvation and climate change.

          So, it is a great idea to grow beans, and to teach our kids how to grow beans. I don’t know when all this will happen, but I am very sure the future will have a lot more small-scale, low-tech agriculture in it.

          Phew. This is essentially a book-length argument in one comment. I hope you can grind your way through it, and I hope I have articulated it reasonably clearly.

      • Ruben:
        Yes, Chris Smaje is a very interesting person. And it was from a comment you left there that I’ve come to find your blog.

        A ley is farmland put to grass and or other longer term meadow type species. It can be fallow, but can also be pastured – in which case livestock can be harvested for human use (either as food or as labor).

        I too am no fan of vertical farming as a panacea to ‘solve’ our sustainability challenges. I do however see some value in the effort. Lessons learned from failure are still lessons learned. Indeed lessons learned from failing tend to be better retained. Tuition from the school-of-hard-knocks is not easily dismissed.

        Thanks for the link to Joshua Farley’s Ecological Economic Theory page (item #4). Lots of good stuff to chew on there.

        • Thanks for coming over here, Clem.

          Okay, with your information as a base, I was able to understand what I was reading on ley fields a bit better.

          In North America, I see fallow used most often in an intensive rotational system, so I have interpreted fallow to mean, “For one season”. Perhaps that is also wrong. But it seems ley can often be for several years, which is interesting. Since I am only an urban farmer (we have a big garden), I don’t have a frame of reference for many of the farming concepts. And, unfortunately, most modern farmers are using techniques of rotation and fertility in ways that don’t apply to the intensive home gardener. Interesting times as we try to figure all this out.

          And good points on the best way to learn lessons.



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