Some time ago, someone sent me a link to a news story about vertical farming, which is a form of urban agriculture. Here is the Wiki on it and here are some news stories about it here, here and here. Amusingly, when you dig into the subject, you find that the growth of vertical farming can be credited to marijuana growers, who used hydroponic farming to grow weed outside the prying eyes of the man. Big agriculture is now jumping into the business, as a way to both cut labor cost, but also transportation costs.
The cost drivers for food production have always been labor, land and transportation, so farmers have always looked to technology to mechanize their process and increase the yield per acre. Getting the result to market, on the other hand, has always been controlled by distance. Farmers are way outside the city and the customers are in the city. Things like motorized transport and refrigeration have had the strange result of increasing the distance between farm and table. Most city dwellers have never seen a farm.
Vertical farming not only allows for greater yield per acre, you just keep growing up, it also allows for the distance between farm and table to collapse. Vertical farms are just buildings using hydroponics and can be as tall as you like. Almost every city has an excess of abandoned warehouse and factory space. Those spaces, in theory, can be turned into vertical farms. The area around them could literally be turned into farmer’s markets, where the locals can buy their food from the farmer.
The other twist on this is the growing of food in a building, rather than out on the land, makes automation easier. Having robots roaming around the countryside sounds like fun, but robots break, so that means people roaming the countryside to fix the robots. In contrast, an automated warehouse requires just a few people to maintain the robots, relatively speaking. A Japanese firm has built a vertical lettuce farm that is entirely automated. It is a robot vertical farm that is commercially viable.
It’s not much a jump in thought to imagine where this can lead. This method of food production means that cities could become independent of the countryside, maybe even become agricultural centers. That means the interdependence of rural and urban that is enforced and regulated by government could be be broken. That does not mean cities would break from from the countryside, but it means they could survive, at least, if order breaks down and government is no longer able to maintain the balance.
The science fiction scenario is not such a big leap, if vertical farming can be what the industry thinks it can be in a few decades. The cosmopolitans who run the cities and control finance and trade, would move to seal off the cities from the countryside. Inside we get the Brave New World of Huxley, while outside we get the depopulated countryside of John the Savage. The cities would be connected by hyper loops built by Elon Musk. Port cities will be where goods and services enter the system from overseas.
As John Derbyshire remarked at the most recent Mencken conference, the future imagined by Huxley is not only more likely than that imagined by Orwell, it is right around the corner. Cities may not become entirely self-sufficient in the next generation, but the world of work and want is possibly coming to a close in the West. A lot can happen between now and the glorious future, like a plague or an unforeseen financial collapse that upends social order, but the future imagined by Huxley is visible on the horizon.
There is one problem with all of this, whether it is self-sufficient cities run by robots or the future imagined by Huxley. That is, what would be the point? Ruling elites have the population they need to rule. They always seek to reduce that which is not useful to their grip on power. The proliferation of birth control is simply eugenics with a happy face. The societies to the South are sending their excess population north because they don’t want them. Every African potentate will tell you. He has too many Africans.
In the robot cities of the future, most of the people would serve no purpose, so they could be expelled out of the city or recycled for their mineral content in the vertical farms. At some point, the only useful people to the ruling elite would be the guards, who defend the city from the outlanders and expel excess people. Some jobs can never be automated, at least not in foreseeable future, so cities would still have people, just not a lot of them. The logical result of that is much smaller cities, but that becomes self-defeating.
Just play out the dynamics of the imaginary world of self-sufficient cities run by robots and it becomes ridiculous in a hurry. The expulsion of people drives up the population of outlanders and drives down the population of cosmopolitans. To keep from being overrun, the number of guards needed by the city must go up. The self-sufficient cities run by robots eventually become armed camps for no other purpose than to guard the vertical farms and give the ruling class someone over whom to rule. It’s pointless.
Of course, there is another side to the question. That is, what’s the point of living in the world imagined by Huxley. That is the thing Derbyshire noted in his talk. People prefer Orwell, because his future seems like it has a point. There is a reason to live. In the Brave New World, life is consumption and fornication floating in an ether of soma, the opioid-like narcotic freely available in Huxley’s future. That’s what makes it so unpleasant for modern readers. Life without purpose is not utopian. It is dystopian..
As we get closer to that world and drug addiction rates spiral upward, suicide rates climb higher and now life expectancy is declining, it suggests there is a stop between here and Huxley’s imagined future. That’s death. Humans, at least Europeans, are not built for captivity. This reality is probably what is driving the migrant invasions. What’s the point of defending your lands when you have no reason to get up in the morning? People don’t defend land. They defend the life that can be built and lived on that land.