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August 13, 2007

"vertical farms" and the new political economy

Since the Industrial Revolution, fossil fuels have reduced human--and animal--drudgery. This has generally been a blessing, although we are now in danger because all that burned carbon is messing up the global climate. (And wars have been fought over oil.)

The blessing of carbon is certainly a mixed one nowadays for older industrial cities like Baltimore, Detroit, or my hometown of Syracuse, NY. You can think of a city as an economy, with imports and exports. Energy is a major import; and we should count not only the electricity, oil, and gasoline that is literally moved into the city, but also the energy components of food, clothing, waste processing, and other necessities.

Fossil fuels have replaced work, but there is not enough rewarding work left in our older cities. The cities have to pay, somehow, for the fuel they import. The best way would be to produce exports, but manufacturing is cheaper in the developing world, and the knowledge economy belongs to people with excellent educations. The old plants lie empty--like Sparrows Point, near Baltimore, which once employed 30,000 people in steel and shipbuilding. The biggest employers in Baltimore City today are the government and private health and education facilities: together, they provide 165,000 out of 350,000 total jobs. Those positions are subsidized by state and federal taxes, but at insufficient rates. You could almost say that Baltimore purchases its fossil fuels and other necessities using Medicare, Medicaid, Title One Education funds, and state aid to schools--all funded by taxpayers who have little love for the inner cities. (I mention Baltimore because it's nearby, but the same is certainly true of Syracuse, New Haven, and other cities in which I have lived.)

The most appealing alternative I can think of is to replace fossil fuels with rewarding human labor that must be done on-site and cannot be outsourced. That is a tall order, especially if we expect the labor to be both rewarding and accessible to people without college degrees. But there are glimmers of hope. I love the idea of vertical farms that would produce hydroponic fruits and vegetables right in the city, using solar power, waste water, and skilled human labor instead of fossil fuels. Think of the nutritional, environmental, educational, social, and even aesthetic advantages if we could pull this off. (The picture is a design by Chris Jacob.)

August 13, 2007 7:59 AM | category: revitalizing the left | Comments


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