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Polar Agriculture
Mark Tovey, 1 Apr 08

The capital of Nunavut has nearly completed construction of the first industrial agricultural facility north of the arctic circle.

Vertical farming in the arctic? This is, of course, April 1st, and we're not going to try to fool you for a minute that this story is true. But what if it were true? Consider the merits: Iqaluit is the only capital city in Canada not accessible by highway. Fresh fruit and vegetables must be brought in by airplane, and sometimes, in summer, by boat. Despite the high costs of building such a structure, the ability to grow food locally in a vertical farm might make more economic sense in the Arctic, than it would in Calgary or Charlottetown. There are high-rises in Iqaluit, which means that there are no intrinsic structural or economic impediments. The population of Iqaluit is 6,184, which means that you could build a structure an eighth of the size of the standard vertical farm designs, which are intended to feed 50,000. As such, it would be less costly to build than a full-size vertical farm, but with more economic rationale—lower capital costs, larger payback. There are definitely factors I'm not taking into consideration, like the potential difficulties of building a zero-net energy building in a place where the winters are much colder. But with a little license for April Fool's, it's actually not such a crazy idea.

And it's those "not such a crazy idea" notions that I want to address today.

In the lead-up to April 1st, I asked myself what kind of green headlines might you see (or might want to see), which would be surprising, maybe even a little startling, but sufficiently plausible that you might believe them.

Although this is more about resilience than bright green futures, one "headline" that came to mind was "Canada builds Strategic Petroleum Reserve". Seems a little crazy, given that we're a net exporter of oil, but as the Parkland Institute recently pointed out, Western Canada is a net exporter of oil, while Eastern Canada imports 90% of its oil. It turns out that there there isn't enough pipeline capacity to supply Eastern Canada from the West, even in a crisis. "Canada Builds Strategic Petroleum Reserve." Hmmm... maybe not so crazy after all.

Another headline idea was: "Hydrogen Village Built at Ontario Place". The Hydrogen Village idea is one which is being shopped around in PEI as part of their efforts to make the province electrically self-sufficient. There are a variety of ways that you can store the variable power output of wind-turbines. One of them is to make hydrogen when the wind is blowing, which you then use to generate electricity when the turbines are still. If we're going to deploy renewables as part of our electricity grid in a serious way, especially for meeting Base-Load power requirements (keeping the lights on and industries running), we need to think seriously about how to store that electricity.

Some of the headlines that will make a bright green future possible will look a little like an April Fool's gag: perfectly plausible with current technology, but a little out there. Not quite crazy, but definitely unfamiliar. Certainly not the obvious solution to a problem. Or maybe a solution to a problem that was not obvious. And that's the essence of a Worldchanging idea.

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I'd add another criterion to your list in the final paragraph - ideas that are practically feasible, but politically impossible.

Here are a few no-brainers:
"US (or Canada, or Europe) Bans Internal Combustion Engine"
"Farm Bill Shifts Subsidies Away from Commodities"
wait, i have one... "EPA Acts to Protect Environment"

Posted by: justus on 4 Apr 08

Grin. A terrific addition. Sometimes the satirical mode is an apt one to be able to talk about certain ideas in a way that people will allow people entertain them.

I notice the specific emphasis on banning the internal combustion engine, as opposed to saying what engines of the future should look like. This suggests a soft path solution to transportation, even personal transportation, which does not depend on implementation.

A good question to ask might be: what combination of policy initiatives and technology (including attractive retrofits of the installed base of automobiles), might make this headline a little less crazy?

Are there ideas that could make this idea attractive to both car-makers and consumers (like appropriately incentivizing the removal from the road of old vehicles that do not meet a certain efficiency/pollution thresh-hold)? To nuance it a little, would there be circumstances, under such a scheme, to allow certain kinds of internal combustion, while disallowing its most inefficient or polluting applications?

Posted by: Mark Tovey on 4 Apr 08

well, on some level this is going on already, through fleet transitions, especially heavy equipment such as buses, through increased use of alternative fuels in diesel equipment, etc.

The problem is personal cars, which resist nuanced approaches because they are already very clean - there's just so damn many of them. A policy shift would be to remove all economic incentives for combustion and replace them with incentives for electric vehicles, transit, and land use reform.
You wouldn't need a ban if you did that, and you wouldn't have to determine what the product 'looked' like.

Posted by: justus on 8 Apr 08

Good post, I missed that April 1st story about vertical farming, but thanks for the heads up now.
Your idea of future headlines is good, very good. The more we can imagine the future, the better we can approach it.

Funny, the day before April 1, well, three days before, on March 29, the New York Times blog had a headline about the Arctic titled "Polar Cities for a warming world?"

Notice the question mark at the end of the headline.

Gizmodo said something like "Gerbil city will be safe refuge in polar regions after doomsday strikes". And Geekologie said in its headline: "Polar cities will save us all from certain death" or something like that.

But on a more serious note, your post was good. Worldchanging is an important concept. The problem is, we might be headed for end of this experiment called Human Species, IF we don't tackle the problems now and start living much simpler lifestyles now. But I don't see many people willing to give up their lattes or jetsetting lifetstyles, everyone wants to keep their financial high as comfy as possible. But it's gonna get a lot uncomfy sooner or later. Why don't we all start practicing for this now? Maybe next April 1st, the headline will say:

"Cars banned from all interstates, commercial jet travel suspended, Starbucks closed due to lack of customers arriving in their shiny BMWs and SUVs."

Posted by: Danny Bloom on 15 Apr 08



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