What if, in the same way, human beings upcycled places one might not think of to provide earth battery power wherever needed? Think of a simple strategic instruction: Where possible, go from gray to green and hard to soft. From asphalt to vegetation, from concrete to earth.
This is not just about reclaiming underused spaces in established cities. New cities are being built from the ground up in tough terrain for farming in the surrounding land. Bill’s firm has been working with various Chinese cities that have problems with flooding and populations predicted to double. He has proposed bringing the “waste equals food” concept to life: building fertilizer factories, where struvite, magnesium, phosphorus, and nitrogen are cycled, and using this to restore biodiversity to the city’s parks and gardens, while simultaneously cleaning drinking water. The most dramatic change proposes to lift the farming onto roofs, thereby working around the threat of flooding by optimizing water absorption, storage, and usefulness for park and food production. For a new city expanding into previously untouched land, the area might look the same as it used to from the air—green stretches of vegetation—except underneath a city has appeared.
Let’s take this greenhouse thinking even further.
Grown with the Wind
As we said at the start of this chapter, the first green revolution, which could be seen as the dawn of agriculture and green growing, was dramatically expanded by the Borlaug green revolution of the last decades in technique and nutrient management, applied minerals, and genetic modification. The conventional industry thinks that the next green revolution will be an extension of this last one, and we know, of course, that those efforts will certainly continue, since powerful factors in industry and economics are working that way.
But society might also be delightfully surprised. The next green revolution might not come only from that direction. It might well come from intensive local growing and locally optimized systems that benefit from shorter transportation distances, optimized water use, improved permaculture to replace chemical requirements, and multistory greenhouses.
Or even greenhouses that don’t need the sun. Today, farming with LED-lit greenhouses is much more expensive than farming using natural solar light, but we are watching closely as the price drops dramatically due to mass production. If the LED lights are run on renewable power, the system becomes even more interesting. Dutch researchers have found ways to stack farming in warehouses in shelves one and a half meters apart.
China has a real challenge feeding its expanding population. Some regions of China are considered too windy for good farming; 61 percent of the country’s desertification is caused by wind. Some data shows only 15 percent of China’s land is considered arable, and so the pressure now is on the marginal land to produce the food needed.
In China, roofs might be employed, through stacked hydroponics and the rejuvenation of soil through use of the country’s biological phosphate and biogas off-products. But a city can’t feed its whole population by itself, nor can it produce the full varieties of foods people want. The supply must come from the surrounding countryside. If you extend this idea of a concentrated and optimized agriculture system by even miles into the surrounding land, it begs the design question: Why do people go hungry?
If you look at the whole problem, these remote populations need food, but it doesn’t make economic or energy sense to ship produce from far away. What if these regions built greenhouses, some even underground? In that case, the windiness of the regions would be an asset, making the territory more arable. In this case, the light would come not from the sun but from the wind-powered LEDs. The wind would be bringing calories—energy to be used by humans—to people through the food. And what if you took that idea of underground growing even further and were not just getting the crops you needed but were actually storing energy in plants to export to areas that needed energy (in this case caloric). One difficulty with wind power is that it vacillates due to the changes in wind strength throughout the day and night; utility operators struggle with what to do with excess energy during strong gusts, how to store that energy for calmer periods. An ideal system is to create ways to fruitfully dump excess energy and have it ready for another time.