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May 12th, 2007


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08:22 pm - The Ghost Map + Musings on Cities
Several months ago, lyssabard recommended the book The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson. I finished it today and was most impressed. The first 200 pages are a fascinating story of two people working separately and then together attempting to find and prove the cause of the exceptionally lethal London cholera epidemic of 1853, which given that they were doing this before the germ theory of disease existed was especially impressive. The last 60 pages then discuss the impact of this discovery over the next few decades and the eventual conquest of cholera in first world water supplies, followed by one of the best and most carefully thought out (as well as deeply impassioned) discussions of cities I've seen. The author clearly loved cities as much as I do and describes one of the biggest transformations between 1853 and today being both the quintupling of the number of humans living in cities worldwide. In 1800 3% of all humans lived in cities, in 1853, 10%, and today 50% of all people live in cities, while simultaneously cities have gone from being significantly less healthy more disease-ridden and generally problematic places to becoming on average places that are significantly healthier to live (for reasons ranging from improved services to easier access to healthcare) than rural areas, to the fact that the predictions of telecommuting in the early to mid 90s indicated that if given the options, more people would choose to live in rural areas and telecommute to work, the actual fact is that cities and urban populations have continued to grow in both first and third world nations and that the fact remains that even given other options, most people choose to live in cities. He then goes on to discuss everything from how much less energy humans use living in cities than the same number of humans would use spread out over the planet, to thoughts on the future of cities.

Using two figures I've seen before several times – the latest population predictions that indicate that the world population will peak in 2050 at 8 billion people, and then begin to decline, and that by that time or shortly thereafter, as much as 80% of all people might live in cities. In addition to the various positive benefits he describes, this seems absolutely marvelous from the perspective of protecting biodiversity. Today, 3 billion people live in towns and rural areas, in 2050, even with a larger total population (which will then, thankfully begin declining) the total number of people in these areas will be reduced to around half that number, providing significantly more space for animals to live, especially if some of the food technologies on the horizon, particularly growing meat in vats, works out. Most humans can live in cities, using significantly fewer resources than a less urban population, while twice the land are on the planet can go back to being uninhabited wilderness areas – definitely my idea of a victory for everyone. In any case it's a fascinating story and I'm also very pleased to read something by someone who so clearly loves and values cities.
Current Mood: pleasedpleased

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Comments:


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From:teaotter
Date:May 13th, 2007 04:18 am (UTC)
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Miss you terribly.
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From:heron61
Date:May 13th, 2007 04:35 am (UTC)
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*Forlorn Meow* Miss you lots. I'll be home in less than 48 hours though. I love you so very much. 7:47 PM from Dulles, on Monday.
From:herbalgrrl
Date:May 13th, 2007 04:35 am (UTC)
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wonderful post, thanks for this
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From:heronheart
Date:May 13th, 2007 06:33 am (UTC)
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while twice the land are on the planet can go back to being uninhabited wilderness areas – definitely my idea of a victory for everyone.

Um, probably not. While urban food production combined with surrounding farms can be much more efficient than current living patterns, you still have to have enormous amounts of extractive activities (mining, etc) to provide the basic feedstocks for your food factories. While composting of human waste can provide a lot of those feedstocks, you're still going to need an enormous amount of space to compost the excrement of 8 billion people. Industrial food systems have a nasty habit of concentrating nutrients until they become toxins. The best example of this is the large amount of land required for the factory farming of pigs and the enormous ecological damage caused by their waste products.

My own feeling is that about a billion humans is probably the maximum the Earth can support, especially at high levels of consumption. Any more than that and it simply becomes a question of how long it takes for the toxins to accumulate to a lethal level.
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From:xuenay
Date:May 13th, 2007 12:49 pm (UTC)
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The best example of this is the large amount of land required for the factory farming of pigs and the enormous ecological damage caused by their waste products.

I'm hoping they'd perfect the technique of growing meat in cell cultures and thus help minimize the damage done by animal farming.
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From:heronheart
Date:May 13th, 2007 04:01 pm (UTC)
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Except that cell cultures still need nutrient feedstocks which still means either agriculture or mining. And cell cultures still have metabolic waste products which the company will probably want to just dump down the drain which equals pollution. A cell culture "farm" is really just a factory farm without animal brains. If one were to do a lifecycle energy and pollution analysis I would wager that the cell culture farm would be even less efficient because the corporation would have to supply so many things (like an immune system) that nature supplies for free.

Now compare that to a rotating pasture system which can actually ecologically improve the land it's done on by recreating a prarie ecosystem.
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From:xuenay
Date:May 13th, 2007 04:29 pm (UTC)
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Obviously there would still be waste products, but I'm very sceptical of the notion that it'd be less efficient than a "real" farm. To take your example - just keep the cell cultures in a sufficiently sterile environment, and there's no need for a separate immune system. Only spending energy and nutrient feedstocks to grow the meat itself would be far more efficient than growing brains, bones and all sorts of internal organs that ultimately go unused and end up as waste.
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From:antayla
Date:May 13th, 2007 04:14 pm (UTC)
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Maybe we can develop new industrial processes that don't require large areas of land to process out the toxins from shit or to extract the minerals we need for food production from the waste products to be used again within a closed-loop system.

It is really going to depend upon the costs of the use of land space vs. the costs of building ginoromous facilities (even if they do encompass even 1%, 10% or 50% of the space required in less tech-intensive processing methods.) The costs of using land space will depend upon the value of their alternate uses (such as being left untouched to grow trees to process carbon or to preserve biodiversity.) THIS value will of course depend on what sort of caps a global government (I think this is inevitable) puts on carbon production worldwide. And of course the costs of moving waste/food.

I see little point in opening up new lands for resource production. I say, leave the untouched land untouched... except for very limited recreational and scientific (including industrial science) research uses. We have more than enough land open for renewable resource production as it is. It just needs to be better managed. Opening up new land will merely be a one-time drop in the bucket; if we cut down all the Amazon it isn't just going to grow back. Why cut down an irreplaceable resource just to build a few more chairs or to farm for a season or two just to make a few more burgers?
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From:heron61
Date:May 13th, 2007 07:52 pm (UTC)
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Improved recycling and environmental protection laws like those in the EU (which are considerably more strict than those in the US) can do a vast amount to mitigate these problems. Also, the population is predicted to peak at 8 billion in 2050 and then decline, so it's not like the earth will have to support 8 billion people indefinitely.

No, the US isn't going to do a very good job with any of this, but no one expects it to. Instead, the progress is being made in first world nations with far more limits on their resources, like Japan and most of the nations of Western Europe. Eventually, the US (or its balkanized remains) will adopt these measures. From what I've seen of some of the efforts in Germany, it's possible to make industries vastly cleaner that they are now. If we go more for vat-grown food, we could do similar things with food - vat grown meat cultures fed by nutrients extracted from vat-grown algae sounds like it could be made exceptionally efficient and could potentially be designed to have little waste. As the example of solar power in Germany has proven, if the government mandates various standards, industry will figure out how to meet them - so if we (or more accurately, the inhabitants of actual civilized nations) get strict enough, companies will find ways to make what they wish in a manner that is both economical and environmentally safe.
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From:rjgrady
Date:May 14th, 2007 01:31 pm (UTC)
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I try to be a good little futurist, but the phrase "vat grown meat" just doesn't sound appealing. And what about bones?

Was it The Space Merchants that had Chicken Little? Hilarious, disturbing... definitely not appetizing. I have a hard time accepting vat grown meat as anything but a satire of modern factory farms.

I like eating dead animals. And as much as I like city life, I believe it's important to retain a consciousness of our animal, ecological nature.

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