Permaculture as an MMO?

Paul Raven @ 15-12-2009

permaculture produceTaking a brief break from grim predictions of hyperlocal terrorism and the decline of the nation-state, John Robb hypothesises about a way to solve the looming problem of localised food production: why not make permaculture into a sort of MMO game?

Riffing on the popularity of Farmville (which I suspect bears about as much relation to real farming as a round of Arkanoid bears to real atmospheric re-entry in a spaceship), Robb suggests that boosting the fun and competitive aspects of farming projects in meatspace could be a great way to build more resilient communities:

… the current state of software that aids the design of permaculture plots is pretty dismal. The best people can do is cobble together mapping software, 3D landscape modeling software, and some auto CAD. Of course, it is possible if the resources were available (my team of developers could do it), to build software that enables people to design, optimize, and share permaculture plots, that misses a great opportunity.

The real opportunity is to build a learning system via software, one that naturally trains the people that use it, gets better and more sophisticated over time, and is fun. The only way I know how to do that is build a game.

One of the first things to do, is build a simple Farmville type social game that helps people learn permaculture design principles…

I’ll admit to being cynical on this one; I think the fun elements of a social game based on farming would be swiftly forgotten when it came to the first day of digging irrigation channels under a blazing sun. But maybe not… and Robb’s idea might work well in developing nations where the bulk of people are already farmers, enabling them to learn and shift to new and more sustainable techniques over time. [image by JoePhoto]

Tobias Buckell takes down vertical farming

Paul Raven @ 16-10-2009

Vertical farm conceptWe’ve mentioned vertical farming a number of times before, and the mighty BoingBoing brought it up earlier in the week; general consensus seems to be that it’s a lovely idea. [Vertical farm image borrowed from]

But lots of things are lovely ideas until you run the numbers on them, and that’s exactly what Futurismic alumnus Tobias Buckell has been doing with vertical farming:

One of the more famous advocates of the Vertical Farm concept, Dickson Despommier, estimates a 30 story farm would feed about 10,000-50,000 people (depending on which article he’s speaking in). Let’s be charitable and assume 30,000 per 30 story skyscraper.

A 30 story skyscraper can cost as much as half a billion dollars. So we’re looking at a unit cost of at least that to build these, and that’s not considering the hydroponic and recycling technology costs!

New York has 10 million people. To feed New York, you’d need roughly 334 of these buildings, with the building cost being at least $150 billion.

That’s affordable on a country scale (10 years of NASA-like budget).

But the fact is, the existing land sprawling out around New York and the US and gasoline to transport the goods from the heartland to NYC is still far cheaper when an accountant crunches the figures.

That’s a whole lot of money, as Toby rightly points out. Which is no reason to abandon the idea entirely, of course, but as with all futurist visions it needs to be tempered with some reality. No plan ever survives contact with the enemy, after all, and economics is the enemy of us all at the moment (with the possible exception of the Wall Street weasels, natch).

One possible solution to Toby’s objections might be retrofitting old skyscrapers with the new kit. Perhaps that would be cheaper than raising a structure from scratch?

The Gaming Fields: crops, copyright and DIY genetic engineering

C Sven Johnson @ 30-09-2009

Sven Johnson reports back from the Future Imperfect once again. This time the IP boot is on the other foot, as a keen gamer casts a copyrighted GM crop in an extremely unfavourable light

Future Imperfect - Sven Johnson


I suppose I don’t need to ask how many of you have succumbed to the latest “farm game” revival craze. If you’re reading this column you’re almost certainly playing Genetic Seed, the latest in a seemingly never-ending stream of post-aquapocalyptic, real-time strategy MMOs; this one the obvious offspring of such classics as Food Risk and Germplasm II. However, if you’ve somehow remained oblivious and don’t want to google for an explanation, think of it as the cross-pollinated spawn of a scorched-earth Spore and one of those open source gene-splicing applications… only instead of critters, you play God with the plant life. The better your clan’s food, the stronger its fighters, the bouncier the babes, and so on. Continue reading “The Gaming Fields: crops, copyright and DIY genetic engineering”

Technology and population growth

Tom James @ 28-09-2009

fieldThere’s a great interview over at New Scientist with environmentalist and techno-realist Jesse Ausubel on the subject of how technology and improved agricultural practices may enable and support continued population growth and economic prosperity:

You’ve said that we could feed 10 billion people on half the area we currently use by improving agricultural efficiency. How would that work?

High yields are the best friend of nature. Even if humans remain carnivorous, if we continue lifting yields at roughly 2 per cent per year, as farmers have achieved over the past 100 years, then simple arithmetic shows lots of land now farmed will be abandoned and can return to nature. The world population is increasing by only around 1 per cent per year, so sustaining 2 per cent yield growth could free half of farmed land over 75 years or so. The highest yields that have been achieved in China, India, the US and many other countries are typically 300 per cent of average yields, so 2 per cent yearly gains are not miracles. They are business-as-usual, but with a lot of sweat.

It’s weird to hear someone talking about population growth as if it was something manageable, rather than something to be worried about. I was particularly intrigued by the notion of quorum sensing:

Surely our inability to limit ourselves is a major issue.

Some recent research suggests organisms do try to sense limits. Even bacteria turn out to have networks of social communication and to use something called quorum sensing to coordinate their gene expression according to the local density of their population, and so avoid disastrous growth.

Ever the optimist, I see no reason why problems like global warming, deforestation, or resource depletion should not eventually be resolved. It rarely seems to be a matter of practical or even economic barriers, but rather political will to take the kind of action needed.

Clean air laws and action taken on the ozone layer show that it is possible to make the necessary changes.

[image from Olof S on flickr]

Alabama vs. the Evil Weed

Paul Raven @ 24-09-2009

cogongrassBattle-lines are being drawn down in Alabama for a $6million war against an alien invader. It’s tough, burns only at very high temperatures and almost completely inedible by natives… it’s cogongrass, the “Perfect Weed”, and if it’s not stopped it could wreck the ecosystem as well as regional agriculture. [via SlashDot; image from Wikimedia Commons]

The story of cogongrass follows the familiar science-fiction theme of humankind reaping what it has sown, through arrogance, stupidity or some other frailty. Conduct nuclear testing, say hello to mutants. Be careless with nonnative species, say hello to cogongrass.

It is believed that in the winter of 1911-12, shipments of satsuma orange rootstocks from Japan arrived in Grand Bay, about 25 miles south of Mobile. And what was being used as packing material for these shipments? Cogongrass, of course.

For a while, government officials encouraged the use of cogongrass as a forage crop and as a way to stem soil erosion. These efforts failed, a state document says, and “the plant unfortunately was allowed to escape” — across southern Alabama, into Florida, Mississippi, and beyond.

Now, come springtime, you can see its white feathery tufts, surrendering seeds to the wind. Come summer, the yellow-green blades can rise six feet high. Then, during winter, the grass turns brown but often remains erect, as if in defiance.

Despite the slightly comical framing of the story, it’s a serious matter – one of a type that will likely become more prevalent rather than less. We’ve mentioned before that evolution moves faster when the pressures are stronger… and the cogongrass isn’t just competing with local plants but with the people trying to stop it, not to mention climate change.

It’s a bit of a lame apocalypse from a fictional point of view, but what if civilization ground to a standstill fighting a war of containment against relentless non-sentient vegetable enemies?

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