George Monbiot Girds For Bruising Battle Against The Madness of Vertical Farms


StudioMobile: Vertical farm in Dubai

George Monbiot is one of the better environmental writers around, and also one of the most controversial. He acknowledges the fact and says "I find myself at odds with other greens almost as often as I find myself fighting our common enemies. I've had bruising battles over a long series of miracle solutions supported by my friends." And now he is ready to rumble once again, on that issue that is front of mind for every environmentalist: Vertical farms. He writes in the Guardian:

No green delusion is as crazy as the one I am about to explain. The idea itself might not interest you. But the insight it gives into the filtering techniques human beings use is fascinating. So please bear with me while I spell out the latest madness.

Plantagon: Vertical Farm That Can Go Anywhere

Reading George, you would think that the entire green movement was lining up to put a vertical farm beside every hydrogen highway. As a solution to the problem of feeding our cities, George notes that

There are a number of plausible solutions. But none of them appeals to some environmentalists as much as the towering lunacy promoted by a parasitologist at Columbia University called Dickson Despommier.

Appeals to who?

Environmentalists love it. Treehugger.com claimed that vertical farming would "help us stop the use of pesticides, herbicides, oil-based fertilizers"

in 2005!. And even in that first TreeHugger article on vertical farming, Mike was not convinced, noting "I think we already produce enough food, it's just that we do it in a way that destroys nature and we don't distribute that food properly."

[Treehugger] suggested, again unhindered by evidence, that it could produce a net output of energy.

Um, no, in 2007 I quoted New York Magazine. I also said "The article is like the Popular Science Moonbase of the Future essays of my childhood, in a round structure "Inspired by the Capitol Records building in Hollywood." I concluded: "Good drawings, lots of ideas and great fun at ::New York Magazine"

George then writes:

The Huffington Post said the idea is "so simple, so elegant that you wonder why you didn't think of it yourself."

Indeed, Jacqueline Leo did say that. And the first commenter responded with "It's a childish fantasy dreamed up by someone who can't get his head out of Manhattan or his backside out of suburbia, who thinks that electricity, topsoil, water, and machinery are 'free' in comparison to the amount of land available."


Laurie Chetwood: London Bridge

George concludes:

...To ensure that we won't be "overwhelmed by the uncertainty inherent in living in a world we can never truly know", we shut them out by lying to ourselves. Though it challenges my sense of self, I am forced to accept that my allies can lie to themselves as fluently as my opponents can.

Who's lying to themselves here? Dr. Dickson Despommier comes up with an idea, a lot of architects are attracted to it and produce pretty drawings, and a lot of pretty drawings get published in the mainstream media. In five years of watching the vertical farm scene I have not heard of a single serious environmentalist taking it seriously in its 30-storey urban tower form. There are just beginnings of designers figuring out that perhaps a portion of the south face of buildings could be productively used.

In the meantime, Stan Cox and David Van Tassel are quoted in a TreeHugger post entitled Vertical Farms Aren't Going to Solve Our Food Problems

"Although the concept has provided opportunities for architecture students and others to create innovative, sometimes beautiful building designs, it holds little practical potential for providing food."

Adam Stein is quoted in a post titled Adam Stein on Vertical Farms: "Pie in the Sky"

I really don't know what other word to use to describe the notion of spending "hundreds of millions" of dollars to build weird, poorly sited temples of food production in areas much better suited to dense, green residential and retail space.

Using urban real estate in this manner is incredibly wasteful: bad for the economy and bad for the environment. Local food has its merits, but that's what New Jersey is for.

Hank Green and Philip Proefrock are quoted in a TreeHugger post titled Do Vertical Farms Make Sense?

A farmer can expect his land to be worth roughly $1 per square foot...if it's good, fertile land. The owner of a skyscraper, on the other hand, can expect to pay more than 200 times that per square foot of his building. And that's just the cost of construction. Factor in the costs of electricity to pump water throughout the thing and keep the plants bathed in artificial sunlight all day, and you've got an inefficient mess.

I thought Hank and Philip were getting over-wrought and concluded:

Visions of vertical farms are exciting visions, but I really don't think anyone, except perhaps Dr. Dickson Despommier himself, thinks we are going to be building them soon. As we called them in our post on Futurama Farming in New York, they are "Good drawings, lots of ideas and great fun."

But nobody does over-wrought like George Monbiot. In this case he is over the top, looking for a windmill to tilt at when there isn't one.

Read Greens living in ivory towers now want to farm them too in the Guardian.