Thoughts, essays, and writings on Liberty. Written by the heirs of Patrick Henry.

“It is dangerous to be right in matters on which the established authorities are wrong.”     Voltaire

June 14, 2008

Pie Vegetation In The Sky?

by Brad Warbiany

Seen on Colbert:

Sounds like a very cool concept… But his use of terms like what “the plan we would like to see implemented” worries me. I’m a much bigger fan of letting the market decide, not relying on some collective implementation of a plan* (i.e. government).

So I went and checked out the group’s website. I’ll let you graze there yourself to learn more, but a few things I found here only confirm my fears:

Providing all urban populations with a varied and plentiful harvest, tailored to the local cuisine eliminates food and water as resources that need to be won by conflict between competing populations. Starvation becomes a thing of the past, and the health of millions improves dramatically, largely due to proper nutrition and the lack of parasitic infections formerly acquired at the agricultural interface. Given the strength of resolve and insight at the political and social level, this concept has the potential to accomplish what has been viewed in the past as nearly impossible and highly impractical.

Will vertical farming walk my dog too? After all, they’re promising a whole lot of other ridiculous benefits along with it…

Oh, and this one really takes the cake:

It is further anticipated that large-scale urban agriculture will be more labor-intensive than is currently practiced on the traditional farm scene, since the deployment of large farm machinery will not be an option. Hence, employment opportunities abound at many levels.

And this is a good thing? Really, in a nation where we’re already importing agricultural workers, he’s saying that less efficiency in our agricultural sector is a good thing?

Maybe I should go to his house and break some windows; imagine how many more glaziers he’ll need to employ!

* Yes, I say that with full understanding of the fact that our government is already “planning” agriculture through subsidy and regulation far more heavily than they should be.

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17 Comments

  1. Blatant threadjack: Feel free to delete if you’d rather discuss it at another time.

    About a month ago, I wondered about the end game of robotics. Given the current direction of things, it seems apparent that we will eventually arrive at a time where there will be a market for only the very smartest of human beings. The cream of the cream of the crop, so to speak.

    I doubt I’m the first to wonder about this, so feel free to simply post a link and let me read, but I have to ask. Does that scenario not shoot a gaping hole in libertarian philosophy? In that case, would the means of efficient production rest in the hands of a relatively small group of people, thus necessitating either drastic socialism or mass starvation?

    Comment by Jeff Molby — June 15, 2008 @ 12:47 am
  2. Brad,

    And this is a good thing? Really, in a nation where we’re already importing agricultural workers, he’s saying that less efficiency in our agricultural sector is a good thing?

    I’m going to be the cynic and dismiss these guys as utopians, but if their plan were to work out and it were to be the labor intensive process, I suspect that the only way it would work by way of the free market is if this plan was implemented in an area that already had a massive surplus of labor (i.e. Mexico, Zimbabwe, Middle East). The U.S. is probably the last place that they should want to try to start this.

    However, this comment from their site…

    If we do not, then in just another 50 years, the next 3 billion people will surely go hungry, and the world will become a much more unpleasant place in which to live.

    …indicates to me that these guys are a bunch of Malthusians who are completely out to lunch (pardon the pun). Whenever I hear a group predict that starvation will occur on a massive scale, killing billions (particularly since one of the bigger reasons for our food problems now is government intervention that can be done away with much more easily than these guys’ program can be implemented) it’s usually being spouted by people who haven’t really done much research and are prone to making things up.

    Fact is, one of the bigger reasons there are food problems now is because of things like ethanol subsidies (to use one example), which are driving food prices up since it’s taking away arable land from food production, not because we’re incapable of growing enough food for the planet as is. The problem with food isn’t that it’s not available, it’s that the government has unintentionally made it more expensive by putting ethanol corn into competition with wheat and corn for food. Ultimately, as we’ve seen here in Kansas, wheat and food corn are going to end up being the crops grown because since you can’t change the demand for food the price for food inevitably rises high enough to surpass the benefit from ethanol subsidies for farmers. But it’s hurting the consumers, particularly in poorer countries where they have less disposable income.

    On a sidenote, I think that the ethanol subsidies, enacted during the height of Bush’s power, should be added as fodder for the debate on whether Bush is the worst president of all time. Creating a program to starve poor people, combined with everything else, I think should push him uncontested into the number two position, challenging for the top spot.

    Comment by UCrawford — June 15, 2008 @ 8:23 am
  3. Jeff,

    As an electrical engineer, I look forward to your utopia, because I shall become god-like. My enormous salary will pay for a host of assistants, butlers. The service economy shall exist to serve me :-)

    But seriously, I don’t think it’s a problem. A couple hundred years ago, America was an agrarian society, and we asked “what would happen if all these people leave the farms? What will they do with their time?” Now we have mechanized farming that employs nearly nobody, and we’re far richer than we were back in those days.

    Look ahead to the point where robotics are producing our goods (which, frankly, is already happening in the US – manufacturing employment is roughly steady but output has jumped significantly over the last 30 years), and we will find a lot of other employment for people. As our wealth rises, our desires rise as well, and filling those demands will continue to require people.

    The real question you’re asking is “what happens when we eliminate scarcity in society?” Scarcity is an elastic term. Each time we find a way to feed another billion people, they decide they want health care, or automobiles, or the internet. At the same time Americans replace their desire for television with a desire for color TV, with a desire for cable/satellite TV, with a desire for HDTV’s so thin we can hang them on a wall.

    Increased use of robotics for production only HELPS our situation, because it opens up those manufacturing employees to do something else– fulfilling our desires that they could not fulfill when hand-building goods for us.

    Comment by Brad Warbiany — June 15, 2008 @ 8:56 am
  4. they have a bio-reactor for the basement and a sunlight application for the roof and nothing in between. i think dr dick is most insincere and is acting like a rock star flying round the world talking up this dream of his that makes little sense, but he sure is getting his 15 minutes with a project that should get about 1.5 seconds of fame. he is now in the top 1% of least sustainable life styles with all his air travel and hob knobbing

    Comment by ted — June 15, 2008 @ 9:01 am
  5. Jeff asks:

    . Given the current direction of things, it seems apparent that we will eventually arrive at a time where there will be a market for only the very smartest of human beings. The cream of the cream of the crop, so to speak.

    That’s actually not correct. This is kind of the economic equivalent of believing that the Earth is flat in that it’s something that seems obvious to the untrained eye, is believed by many, but is in fact wrong.*

    The short and quick answer is contained in the explanation of Ricardo’s law of comparative advantage. I don’t have time to go into it in detail, but it is a pretty good logical demonstration that even in a economic system consisting of hyperproductive supermen and all around less capable regular joes, there will always be a demand for the regular joes’ labor.

    And, if the regular joes are producing nothing that the supermen want, then there will two economies that don’t trade with each other, and the regular joes will still engage in economic activity with each other. The regular joes will not be reduced to begging – the technology that makes super-capable robots possible will also make the regular joes far more productive as well. I suspect that in such an economy there will be lots of loafing around, having fun. :)

    Addendum: Jeff, I don’t want you to think I am insulting you with that comment . The point I am trying to make is that prior to Erosthenes famous experiment in Alexandria that proved that the Earth was round and estimated it’s diameter to within 2%, if you walked among the common people, most of them would tell you tha tthe Earth was flat, or at least very wrinkled. These people were not stupid, they were almost as intelligent as we are today (we get a leg up due to better nutrition as children). They had the misfortune to live at a time when there was far less knowledge available as to how the universe was set up and how we humans could exploit it to meet our needs.

    Comment by tarran — June 15, 2008 @ 9:04 am
  6. My enormous salary will pay for a host of assistants, butlers. The service economy shall exist to serve me :-)

    And if the service economy is almost completely automated? You can see the very beginnings of it already. Coinstar, bottle return machines, automated car washes, self-service check-out lanes.

    Unless we reach some sort of computational ceiling, it’s inevitable that we will reach a day when all manual labor could be replaced by inexpensive machines. Why would anyone hire a butler for $X per year when one can purchase an equally capable machine for a one-time fee of $2X plus minimal upkeep?

    Anyways, I know there’s a lot to it and market forces might just prevent it from ever going that far, but I was just hoping someone might be able to point me towards a paper that discussed the distant future in depth.

    Comment by Jeff Molby — June 15, 2008 @ 10:33 am
  7. It is further anticipated that large-scale urban agriculture will be more labor-intensive than is currently practiced on the traditional farm scene, since the deployment of large farm machinery will not be an option. Hence, employment opportunities abound at many levels.

    Instant evidence the idea is half-baked. There’s been roof-attached machinery available for at least 60 or 70 years, and it would be perfectly feasible to develop said technology for a vertical farm. Instead, they want to offer “employment opportunities”.

    Comment by Quincy — June 15, 2008 @ 10:42 am
  8. Tarran,

    Does that hold true even if the supermen have acquired all of the natural resources (land, water, minerals, etc)?

    Comment by Jeff Molby — June 16, 2008 @ 7:11 am
  9. Jeff,

    How are these supermen going to get hold of all these resources? If they’re trading for them, doesn’t that imply that they’re giving the regular joe’s something in exchange – things that the regular joes want? It’s not like the regular joes are abnormally stupid – nor will they suddenly become stupid when doing business with people who are smarter than them.

    And, of course, this ignores the fact that there aren’t really two populations: through marriage, friendships and trade any such fractioning would be temporary.

    The probability of one group of people, through peaceful trade, could become the sole owners of everything is about the same as that of all the air molecules in a room leaping to one corner leaving you to asphyxiate in the resulting vacuum.

    Comment by tarran — June 16, 2008 @ 10:10 am
  10. How are these supermen going to get hold of all these resources? If they’re trading for them, doesn’t that imply that they’re giving the regular joe’s something in exchange – things that the regular joes want?

    Through a lengthy process of mutual trade. The supermen would be constantly producing goods desired by joes, but the reverse would rarely, if ever, be true. The joes would therefore only be able to acquire the supermen’s goods by trading their natural resources. The joes would naturally value their natural resources more and more as they dwindled, but the best they could ever hope for is to stop the bleeding, because they have no way of enticing the resources back from the supermen.

    Comment by Jeff Molby — June 16, 2008 @ 11:06 am
  11. That’s and absolutely unrealistic scenario: a regular joe who has nothing these supermen want is still capable of productive work. At a minimum, he can take up subsistence farming – something which I think extremely unlikely.

    Remember, initially everybody has a mix of stuff they own. Some people own natural resources. Other people own capital goods like factories. Other people have services they can provide either based on knowledge, some skill, their appearance or something. Some people can only sell their unskilled labor. Sprinkled within this soup are the supersmart people.

    As the supersmart guys invent more and more ways to be productive, they won’t be solely hoarding these methods for themselves. Many of them will be trading their knowledge to others for something they want since the inventors of new techniques are rarely also the entrepeneurs who put up the capital to make the ideas a reality. Furthermore, many of these inventions will be focused at greater productivity in producing second or third order goods (goods which are consumed to produce other goods which in turn are consumed to produce consumption goods). Thus the regular joes whom they sell to will become more productive themselves.

    There will always be scarcity. 300 years ago, owning a horse meant unimaginable wealth. Now practically everybody has access to a car. Today owning an airplane is a luxury available to only the rich. 300 years from now, everybody will have cars that fly (or some system of getting abolut the Earth easily and quickly). then, perhaps the luxury will own interplanetary cruisers. A few hundred years later, that will probably change.

    As we get wealthier, new professions are constantly being invented as new wants come to the fore. When Thomas Jefferson was writing people could have asked the same question as to what was going to happen to all the farmworkers put out of work as the farms mechanized. The answer was, of course, they moved to the factories. Then as fewer factories produced more goods they moved to the office building. Now we have professions that would have been unimaginable a few centuries ago such as web designer and quality assurance inspector. And yes, those who want to can take up subsistance farming. Although we call that organic or traditional-methods farming.

    Increased wealth does not leave people poorer.

    Comment by tarran — June 16, 2008 @ 4:00 pm
  12. a regular joe who has nothing these supermen want is still capable of productive work. At a minimum, he can take up subsistence farming

    You’re right and I’m with you when you suggested that a neighboring economy would form.

    Other people have services they can provide either based on knowledge, some skill, their appearance or something.

    Right and like you said, the Joes will be able to trade their labor amongst each. I don’t see, however, how they could reasonably offer their labor to the supermen. Why would a superman pay for someone to do job X when he can have a robot do it at a better ROI?

    As we get wealthier, new professions are constantly being invented as new wants come to the fore.

    Yes, but there is a very strong possibility that the human body and mind have finite capacities. It is also possible that robotics could exceed our abilities. If that happens, it won’t matter what new professions come about, because you’ll still be better off to staff them with robots.

    As the supersmart guys invent more and more ways to be productive, they won’t be solely hoarding these methods for themselves.

    Assuming capitalism continues to prevail to some degree, there will be something akin to a stock exchange, so I don’t deny that the wealth will be spread out to some degree. Throughout all of history, however, the majority have humans have lived their life without acquiring a significant amount of wealth. That could conceivably change (if that’s your contention, please say so), but if it doesn’t, the wealth would gradually accumulate in the hands of those that have equity in the companies that have a hand in producing the new labor force.

    Comment by Jeff Molby — June 16, 2008 @ 7:04 pm
  13. so someone is a little too personally enamored with their idea of vertical farming, and you, in turn, choose to spent inordinate attention deriding it.

    maybe instead you should spend attention to the traditional food supply chain and how the food in your supermarket got there. because that chain won’t be nearly as reliable as it once was. i’ve said that on this forum far before the Iowa floods, which represents only one more event that threatens the totality of the national food production/supply chain.

    Comment by oilnwater@hotmail.com — June 18, 2008 @ 7:13 am
  14. oilnwater,

    Did you put your e-mail address out there by mistake?

    Comment by UCrawford — June 18, 2008 @ 10:21 am
  15. oilnwater,

    Also, it’s not that people here are deriding the idea necessarily, we’re more deriding the idea that any sort of government support should be created to implement it (which is what the guy proposing this seems to want to happen). If he can make a go of vertical farming with his own investment, more power to him. I’m just sort of skeptical that it will fly in a country where we import so much of our agricultural labor.

    Comment by UCrawford — June 18, 2008 @ 10:24 am
  16. Oil,

    My first statement after the video was “Sounds like a very cool concept.” And when I saw it, I definitely think it could be pretty interesting, as it solves one of the main irrigation problems of farmland.

    That said, what I’m deriding is the fact that they’re overpromising the benefits of vertical farming, and that their goals appear to be the sort of social nonsense that requires government enforcement of their “plan”.

    If the idea is cool enough, and if it is an economically-efficient way to solve limits to the scale of existing farming practices as we approach higher world populations, it will be adopted by the market without government force, and we will all be better off. If they rely on government force (through taking money from taxpayers to dole out as subsidies), it is an economically-inefficient way to determine social policy, not a problem-solving advancement to humanity.

    Comment by Brad Warbiany — June 18, 2008 @ 10:56 am
  17. Jeff:

    Anyways, I know there’s a lot to it and market forces might just prevent it from ever going that far, but I was just hoping someone might be able to point me towards a paper that discussed the distant future in depth.

    Jeff, I highly recommend reading Kurzweil. He’s probably the leading thinker today on what the combination of information technology, nano technology and bio technology is going to mean to humans. Starting point is probably his “The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology”.

    You want to know when we will be supermen? Hint, it’s not the far distant future …… more like the next 30 years, give or take.

    Comment by Eric — June 18, 2008 @ 4:47 pm

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