Plowing the 40th Floor

By Steven Gdula

In 1980, the scientist, mathematician and de facto environmentalist Buckminster Fuller stated, “For the first time in history it is now possible to take care of everybody at a higher standard of living than any [generation] has ever known.”

The forward-thinking optimist had devoted the majority of his career to discovering ways in which the latest technological breakthroughs could harness natural energies such as wind and wave power. And like President Thomas Jefferson, who’d once implored all Americans to “make the most of our labor, land being abundant,” Fuller sought to make the most of all of the resources at his disposal. His lifetime goal became singular: Create a world where poverty and hunger were eradicated.

As another Earth Day observance draws near, those looking to the horizon might not see the bright future that Fuller envisioned. Economically and environmentally the world seems to be in shambles. There’s plenty of reason for pessimism to abound. But take a closer look into the schoolyards, the abandoned urban lots, and even the proposed skyscrapers of our here and now, and you’ll not only find natural resources being harnessed, you’ll see enthusiasm and hope sprouting.

In my neighborhood in San Francisco, parents, teachers and concerned neighbors (like myself) have banded together to form an all-volunteer Greening Committee at Paul Revere College Preparatory, the local public school.

Our mission is to create a garden on the school grounds at Paul Revere that will eventually help provide the students with fresh foods; first through a Healthy Snacks program and then through the vegetables, fruits and grains that are served in the school’s cafeteria. Looking beyond that, there has been talk of a establishing a stall at the local farmer’s market where the students could sell the produce harvested from their school.

All of this requires a long vision, one that’s fortunately held by the Greening Committee’s members and the school’s administration.

And with nearly 70% of the enrolled students receiving a free or reduced lunch, the proposed garden on the Paul Revere school property isn’t intended simply as a political token of the actualization of “people power,” or “the green revolution,” or even as a one-off celebration of Earth Day: As the nightly news should make every American realize, we are past the point of “gesture politics.” This garden is a necessity.

In other urban areas citizens have already started such programs not only for the benefit of students, but to help feed the entire community as a whole. In Detroit, Urban Farming’s executive director and founder Taja Sevelle has helped turn vacant lots into productive garden beds, one abandoned foundation at a time. Sevelle is fond of reminding naysayers who believe that personal or community gardens can’t make a difference that 40% of the United States’ fresh produce came from backyard “victory gardens” during World War II. Like Fuller, her mission is to “Eradicate hunger in our time.” To that end she now has urban gardens producing fruits and vegetables feeding communities in several cities in the US and abroad.

This movement of tilling the asphalt is not one solely embraced by volunteers and sustained by donations, alone, though. Its potential to create income by harnessing local labor, embodying Jefferson’s ideal, has caught the attention of leaders like Cory Booker (D), the mayor of Newark, N.J.

One of Booker’s city-saving ideas is to create jobs, and a food supply, by turning the environmental resources available within his city’s limits into economic reality.

As an entity that requires daily maintenance, the urban farm creates jobs and quite literally a cash crop as it supplies food for local markets. One of the most promising examples of this model can be found in “vertical farm skyscrapers.” Housed in a high-rise building, vertical farms propose one of the hottest solutions for addressing the issues of dwindling natural resources, pollution, poverty and hunger, all under the same roof. The vertical farm, or VF, illustrates Buckminster Fuller’s notion of “more is less.” In this case current technology can transform the vertical space available above a city’s streets into a highly productive piece of ground, even if it is 40 stories in the air. Greater food production, using fewer natural resources, can create a reality of lower unemployment rates.

Since the VF is completely enclosed it can grow fruits and vegetables year round, increasing production without being dependent on the climate outdoors. The Vertical Farm will also reduce the use of fossil fuels to transport the food to those eating it since some of the VFs that have been proposed will have residential as well as office space interspersed between the farmed floors.

If estimates are true—that over 75% of the world’s population will be living in urban areas by the year 2050—then what better way to eat locally than by serving a salad consisting of ingredients that were grown just a few floors below?

This Earth Day, there is plenty of reason for optimism. We can work toward eliminating hunger, creating jobs all the while. We can make the most of our labor and our land. All we need to do is look up.

Steven Gdula is a writer in San Francisco, Calif.

From The Progressive Populist, April 15, 2009

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