Greens living in ivory towers now want to farm them too by George Monbiot

17/8/2010 Guardian No one is immune to it; in some respects it is the foundation of our lives. Magical thinking is a universal affliction.We see what we want to see, deny what we don’t. Confronted by uncomfortable facts, we burrow back into the
darkness of our cherished beliefs. We will do almost anything – cheat, lie,
stand for high office, go to war – to shut out challenges to the way we see the
I spend much of my time confronting one aspect of denial: the virulent
repudiation of environmental constraints by those who admit no challenge to
their vision of the world. But it pains me to report that 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
friends: liquid biofuels, hydrogen cars and planes, biochar plantations, solar
electricity in the UK, scrappage payments, feed-in tariffs. But 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 humans use
is fascinating. So please bear with me while I spell out the latest madness.
That there’s a problem is undeniable. As some of the papers published yesterday
by the Royal Society show, farmland is in short supply, water shortages could
impose ever tighter constraints on agriculture and there are grave questions
about whether a growing population can continue to be fed. 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.
Despommier points out that while horizontal space for growing crops is limited,
vertical space remains abundant. So he proposes that crops should be grown in
skyscrapers, which he calls vertical farms. These, he claims, will feed the
growing population so efficiently that ordinary farmland will be allowed to
revert to forest. Vertical farms will feed the urban populations that surround
them, eliminating the need for long-distance transport.
You can, if you shield your eyes very carefully, see the attraction. But even a
brief reading of Despommier’s essays reveals a few trifling problems. He
proposes 30-storey towers to feed people in places like Manhattan. You wouldn’t
see any change from $100m, possibly $200m. The only crop that could cover such
costs is high-grade cannabis. But a 30-storey hydroponic skunk tower would be
hard to conceal.
Without any explanation, Despommier asserts that his system will need “no
herbicides, pesticides, or fertilisers”. Perhaps he has never seen a fungal
infestation in a greenhouse. And does he expect the plants to grow on water and
air alone? He also insists that there will be “no need for fossil-fuelled
machinery”, which suggests that he intends to farm a 30-storey building without
pumps, heating or cooling systems.
His idea, he says, is an antidote to “intensive industrial farming, carried out
by an ever decreasing number of highly mechanised farming consortia”. But then
he calls on Cargill, Monsanto, Archer Daniels Midland and IBM to fund it. He
suggests “locally grown would become the norm”, but fails to explain why such
businesses wouldn’t seek the most lucrative markets, regardless of locality. He
expects, in other words, all usual rules of business, economics, physics,
chemistry and biology to be suspended to make way for his idea.
But the real issue is scarcely mentioned in his essays on the subject: light.
Last week one of my readers, the film-maker John Russell, sent me his
calculations for the artificial lighting Despommier’s towers would require. (You
can read them in full on my website). They show that the light required to grow
the 500 grammes of wheat that a loaf of bread contains would cost, at current
prices, £9.82. (The current farm-gate price for half a kilo of wheat is 6p).
That’s just lighting: no inputs, interest, rates, rents or labour. Somehow this
minor consideration – that plants need light to grow and that they aren’t going
to get it except on the top storey – has been overlooked by the scheme’s
supporters. I won’t bother to explain the environmental impacts.
None of this has dented the popularity of Despommier’s dumb idea. It has
featured in the New York Times, Time magazine and Scientific American, and on
the BBC, CNN, Discovery Channel and NBC. Three weeks ago the Guardian published
a supportive piece, whose author appeared to be unaware that nutrients don’t
magically regenerate themselves in an agricultural system. Environmentalists
love it. claimed that vertical farming would “help us stop the
use of pesticides, herbicides, oil-based fertilizers” and suggested, again
unhindered by evidence, that it could produce a net output of energy. The
Huffington Post said the idea is “so simple, so elegant that you wonder why you
didn’t think of it yourself.”
In my grouchier moments I feel that only those who grow some of their own food
should write about food production. Horticulture, with its endlessly varied
constraints and disappointments, is an excellent corrective to wishful thinking.
But this is about much more than ignorance and inexperience. It’s about seeing
something you like – local food for example – and allowing that idea to crowd
out everything else. This is how we all live.
In a recent essay in New Scientist the psychologist Dorothy Rowe explained that
none of us can see reality. We have to construct it from our interpretation of
what we perceive, tempered by experience. As a result, each of us exists in our
own world of meaning, constantly at risk of being shattered by inconvenient
facts. If we acknowledge them, they can destroy our sense of self. So, 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.
A fully referenced version of this article can be found on George Monbiot’s
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