Re-Blog from George Monbiot: An Electrifying Idea

Taking the liberty to post a copy and paste of a most excellent article by George Monbiot. There are a lot of complaints about the way things are, and are going, and I’m certainly as guilty of that as anyone else and it is to me happiness and relief to be able to post about a revolutionary technological idea that could change our world.  Remember how we were taught in high school that agriculture changed everything for man; how we began a new civilization from that idea?  Well, here’s an idea that goes beyond agriculture and could make agriculture and fishing obsolete. 

Whichever side of the ideological fence we are on, religion or technocracy, we are all basically hoping and waiting for some “miracle” to move us off an unsustainable path as a species and civilization.  Could this be it? Could we do this and avoid the inexorable “die back” to result from our obsession with the maintenance of our old and obsolete ways?  Have a read, it’s quite short.

An Electrifying Idea

Posted: 06 Nov 2018 06:16 AM PST

What if we abandoned photosynthesis as the means of producing food, and released most of the world’s surface from agriculture?

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 31st October 2018

It’s not about “them”, it’s about us. The horrific rate of biological annihilation reported this week – 60% of the Earth’s vertebrate wildlife gone since 1970 – is driven primarily by the food industry. Farming and fishing are the major causes of the collapse of both marine and terrestrial ecosystems. Meat – consumed in greater quantities by the rich than by the poor – is the strongest cause of all. We might shake our heads in horror at the clearance of forests, the drainage of wetlands, the slaughter of predators and the massacre of sharks and turtles by fishing fleets, but it is done at our behest.

As the Guardian’s recent report from Argentina reveals, the huge forests of the Gran Chaco are heading towards extermination, as they are replaced by deserts of soya beans, almost all of which are used to produce animal feed, particularly for Europe. With Jair Bolsonaro in power in Brazil, deforestation in the Amazon is likely to accelerate, much of it driven by the beef lobby that helped bring him to power. The great forests of Indonesia and West Papua are being felled and burnt for oil palm at devastating speed.

The most important environmental action we can take is to reduce the area of land and sea used by farming and fishing. This means, above all, switching to a plant-based diet: research published in the journal Science shows that cutting out animal products would reduce the global requirement for farmland by 76%. It would also give us a fair chance of feeding the world. Grazing is no answer to the ecocide caused by grain-fed livestock: it is an astonishingly wasteful use of vast tracts of land that would otherwise support wildlife and wild ecosystems.

The same action is essential to prevent climate breakdown. Because governments, bowing to the demands of capital, have left it so late, it is almost impossible to see how we can stop more than 1.5° of global warming without drawing carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. The only way of doing it that has been demonstrated at scale is to allow trees to return to deforested land.

But could we go beyond even a plant-based diet? Could we go beyond agriculture itself? What if, instead of producing food from soil, we were to produce it from air? What if, instead of basing our nutrition on photosynthesis, we were to use electricity, to fuel a process whose conversion of sunlight into food is ten times more efficient?

This sounds like science fiction, but it is already approaching commercialisation. For the past year, a group of Finnish researchers has been producing food without either animals or plants. Their only ingredients are hydrogen-oxidising bacteria, electricity from solar panels, a small amount of water, carbon dioxide drawn from the air, nitrogen and trace quantities of minerals such as calcium, sodium, potassium and zinc. The food they have produced is 50 to 60% protein, the rest is carbohydrate and fat. They have started a company (Solar Foods), which seeks to open its first factory in 2021. This week it was selected as an incubation project by the European Space Agency.

They use electricity from solar panels to electrolyse water, producing hydrogen, that feeds bacteria (which turn it back into water). Unlike other forms of microbial protein (such as Quorn), it requires no carbohydrate feedstock – in other words, no plants.

Perhaps you are horrified by this prospect. Certainly, there’s nothing beautiful about it. It would be hard to write a pastoral poem about bacteria grazing on hydrogen. But this is part of the problem. We have allowed a mythical aesthetic to blind us to the ugly realities of industrial agriculture. Instilled with an image of farming that begins in infancy, as about half the books for very small children involve a rosy-cheeked farmer with one cow, one horse, one pig and one chicken, living in bucolic harmony, we fail to see the amazing cruelty of large-scale animal farming, the blood and gore, filth and pollution. We fail to apprehend the mass clearance of land required to feed us, the Insectageddon caused by pesticides, the drying up of rivers, the loss of soil, the reduction of the magnificent diversity of life on Earth to a homogeneous grey waste.

The compound the Finnish researchers have produced from air, water and electricity is most likely to be used as a bulk ingredient in processed food. But (though this goes well beyond the company’s current plans) is there any reason why, with modifications of the process, it could not start to deliver the proteins required to make cultured meat, or the oils that could render palm plantations redundant? Is there any reason why it should not eventually replace much of what we eat?

According to the researchers’ estimates, 20,000 times less land is required for their factories than to produce the same amount of food by growing soya. Cultivating all the protein the world now eats with their technique would require an area smaller than Ohio. The best places to do it are deserts, where solar energy is most abundant. When electricity can be generated at €15 per megawatt hour (a few years hence), their process becomes cost-competitive with the cheapest source of soya.

Could a similar technique also be used to produce cellulose and lignin, eventually replacing the need for commercial forestry? Is there any inherent reason why the hydrogen pathway could not create as many products as photosynthesis does today? Could it help to change our entire relationship with the natural world, reducing our footprint to a fraction of its current size?

There are plenty of questions to be answered, plenty of possible hurdles and constraints. But think of the possibilities. Agricultural commodities, currently using almost all the Earth’s fertile land area, could be shrunk into a few small pockets of infertile land. The potential for ecological restoration is astonishing. The potential for feeding the world, a question that has literally been keeping me awake at night, is just as electrifying.

None of this means we can afford to relax and wait for an infant technology to save us. In the meantime, as urgent intermediate steps, we should switch to a plant-based diet and mobilise against the destruction of the living planet. You could start by joining the Extinction Rebellion that launches today [Wednesday].

But if this works, it could help, alongside political mobilisation, to change almost everything. Places which have become agricultural deserts, trashed by giant corporations, could be reforested, drawing carbon dioxide from the air on a vast scale. The ecosystems of land and sea could recover, not just in pockets but across great tracts of the planet. A new age of global hunger becomes less likely.

Crude and destructive technologies got us into this mess. Refined technologies can help get us out of it. The struggle to save every possible species and ecosystem from the current wave of destruction is worthwhile. One day, perhaps within our lifetimes, they could repopulate a thriving world.

39 thoughts on “Re-Blog from George Monbiot: An Electrifying Idea

  1. Hyperion

    That’s the thinking out of the box we need. The devastation of our natural resources to meet consumer need which results in big profits is a cycle of doom.

      1. Hyperion

        My undivided attention is happiest when engaged. If I become a nuisance just send me to the corner to chill.

      2. Sha'Tara Post author

        Thanks for mentioning that. I do very little moderating and hope it stays that way. This is a fully “open” blog for anyone to express themselves. I’ve never had ‘bad’ comments here, I think because the nature of the material calls for respect. Anyway, say what you want, how you want. Those who “follow” this blog know what they want to read and what they want to skip, right? I respond to comments as I can, or as I find the time. If I don’t understand, I will ask for clarification, thus giving the commenter additional ‘space’ to say what s/he needs to express. Free speech! I am reminded again of that questionable quote, “I may not agree with what you are saying but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” (Attributed to Voltaire but written by Evelyn Beatrice Hall in a biography of Voltaire, if memory serves…?)

  2. franklparker

    Thanks for sharing this one, Sha’tara. There is good news and hope for the future after all. I hope that someone is looking beyond that and attempting to anticipate possible unforeseen, unintended, consequences, as we failed to do with so many other technologies that were once hailed as solutions but eventually threw up more problems than they solved.(Not like me to be so pessimistic)

    1. Sha'Tara Post author

      Thanks for commenting, Frank. Reading your comment over and over, I see something I hadn’t: in the 50’s and on we literally “fell in love” with science and technology. These flew to top spot in the minds of many students and the general public – science could do no wrong and would indeed, “save” mankind. No checks and balances, just the madness of “inloveness” reaching its crescendo with the moon landings. I was one of those. We had it made, hadn’t we! Perhaps to some degree it was a continuation of the Technocracy movement, a belief in technocratic engineering “elitism” – the people best qualified to run the planet (instead of bankers!) it seemed, were scientists and engineers. Unlike religious or fiscal shenanigans there was something tangible about science and there certainly continues to be, if only we possessed qualified minds to run it “for the greater good.” Our emotionalism, our greed and racial hubris always rise to the top to make us our own worse enemies. We are given gold and we rush to the lab to turn it into lead.

  3. Phil Huston

    Butt first – how do we maintain a refreshed eco system? Because once the slaughter stops sheep and wolves and elephants aren’t going to stop procreating. Neither are we. What do we do with the extra cows? Do we ween the beefeaters while we lower the herds? I’m all for a plant based diet, and less processed corn and stuff. Beans ARE magical. But still, the real nagginging question remains. Is it time for Soylent Green?

    1. Sha'Tara Post author

      Natural balance, Phil. I saw it happening in the north – symbiotic relationships between predator and prey. There is a natural system, currently f’d up by man that will take over. By the way, basically all domesticated type animal life is unnatural and would not long survive without man’s hand in it. Cattle types will fall prey to wild predators while cats and dogs will go feral for a while then they too will disappear. The only problem is man’s own proliferation: can we control our drive to procreate our own species to the detriment of everything else? That’s the question that needs addressing, and access to an abundant food supply leaving huge tracts of land available for housing may prove even more devastating that our current conundrum.

  4. katharineotto

    Interesting new technology, possibly with potential, but not likely to mature while I’m alive. Besides, it doesn’t sound very appetizing.

    What does strike me is the wisdom of a primarily vegetarian diet. In her classic book, “Diet for a Small Planet,” in 1971. Frances Moore Lappe noted 70 percent of the world’s grain now goes to feeding animals, essentially what your blog says above. That was before the ethanol mandate, which diverts corn, sugar, and soy to feeding cars, not even animals.

    Other assaults on the environment duly noted, including the frightening deforestation, but how to convince people to give up their single-use packaging, junk mail, and McDonalds’ hamburgers?

    1. Sha'Tara Post author

      The one thing most consumers aren’t aware of is massive government subsidies to agri-business, and why “junk foods” and chemically laden “foods” found in supermarkets are relatively so cheap. When you pay one dollar for some vegetable in the store you’ve probably already paid an additional five dollars from your taxes in government subsidies. So, to begin with, subsidies to agriculture must end forthwith. They are probably as toxic as subsidies to the military.

      1. katharineotto

        Don’t get me started on government subsidies. How many businesses could survive without government help, these days?

      2. Sha'Tara Post author

        Such massive hypocrisy isn’t it – why don’t they call it “socialism” when they’re getting the lion’s share of government largess?

      3. katharineotto

        I already call it “socialism,” and believe all governments are inherently socialist. That’s why I object to calling the US “capitalist,” which I believe is a big lie.

      4. Sha'Tara Post author

        The label “capitalist’ would apply to all the corporate welfare bums; the zillionaires who are so because of government handouts, bailouts and subsidies. As for the actual government of the US, obviously it’s a plutocracy.

      5. katharineotto

        The term “capitalist” generally refers to exploiters of human capital, according to my definition. The US could be called a “plutocracy” or an “oligarchy,” but the kicker is they are proud of that rather than ashamed.

      6. Sha'Tara Post author

        Once more into the fray… and I looked up capitalism, plutocracy and oligarchy. From Wikipedia, I got: Capitalism is an economic system based upon private ownership of the means of production and their operation for profit. Characteristics central to capitalism include private property, capital accumulation, wage labor, voluntary exchange, a price system, and competitive markets.
        Plutocracy, briefly, is rule by wealthy, without need for a political philosophy: money rules.
        Oligarchy is more inclusive and describes the US political/financial system much better. Power is in the hands of a few through family connections – or – wealth – or – nobility – or – education – or – religious/political/military control. In the States there is a combination of all these factors. What is obvious to anyone not an American is that America is no longer even a pretense of a democracy.

      7. katharineotto

        Thanks for the clarification. The phrase, “ownership of the means of production” is Karl Marx definition of capitalism, too. But no one defines what is the “means of production.” Some say it’s the land or the factories, but isn’t the “means” the human labor that runs the machines or works the land? In that case, the “human capital” would be the bona fide “capitalist,” unless s/he is a slave.

      8. Sha'Tara Post author

        Logically, the “means of production” must include natural resources, factories and refineries and the people who operate them. People by themselves with nothing to work with cannot produce anything… except maybe boredom? But that’s not terribly lucrative.

  5. rawgod

    A food system such as this was proposed in science fiction 60 years ago. But at the time the writer was against the unnaturalness of it. I wonder how he or she would react today. But I have a different question: How long will it take to return the amount of oxygen in the air to its present ratio? What with all the deplantification of the land, where is our oxygen going to come from? And where is our carbon dioxide going to go? I have no idea how much of our ecosystem has already been destroyed, but the fight against climate change aside, are we going to be able to breathe the air being generated right now? I read long ago that the available oxygen at the end of the era of the dinosaurs was estimated at 25% of the atmosphere. Today it is at 16%, if we are lucky. What will it be by 2030? I don’t think I want to know.

    1. Sha'Tara Post author

      Fortunately for us, life does not proceed on a unilinear track. Pressure causes massive loss, certainly, but there are always the freaks, the adaptations, the mutants, if they can escape the death judgment of the brain dead “correct” ones (remember “The Chrysalids”?) Many of today’s ideas and concepts may not materialize for the current “generation” of degenerates, but are stored in memory for the coming mutants who will know how to use science and technology properly… How do I know? Whew… very long story. Bits and pieces of it can be found all over this blog if one felt like looking it up and had the time. The details of “how” are not significant as conditions will open up paths that I cannot foresee. How we get there isn’t important but that we do get there… and we will – I’ve personally invested much in creating a new future and I will never abandon that future: I’m gestating my child, rawgod.

  6. Akhila

    recently am reading the book “how not to die” ( not because I am afraid to die) . and coincidentally read this post at the right time. A lot to ponder..

    1. Sha'Tara Post author

      Well Akhila my brainy friend, glad to give you something to ponder on – thanks for dropping by and commenting!

      1. Akhila

        it’s my pleasure to read your posts [ though nowadays i cannot be that regular]. and to be frank if i got a chance to meet any of these bloggers, you would be on my top list ..

  7. adamspiritualwarrior

    I feel George Monbiot amongst many many other MSM so called journalists, we must be wary of. Many journalists are MI5 or MI6 or NSA or CIA or whatever or Mossad agents. Pushing an agenda. It is a mistake to trust the Guardian just like it is for any other MSM paper plus yes I agree many in the alt media which are cabal operations too. Its a jungle out there which is why im relying more and more, FWIW, on my higher self whispering to me and withdrawing into nature a bit when I can so I can here the whispers and feel them and guidance.

    1. Sha'Tara Post author

      Everybody is certainly entitled to their opinion on everything. George Monbiot is a reporter/journalist and doing his job if in part for the necessary pay cheque. We’re always asking the “media” to be more truthful, more challenging, of the establishment. I don’t know, but maybe if more people could hear the fairies, the elves, the unicorns, the butterflies and mushrooms, the trees and the winds… maybe we wouldn’t need media at all. If there weren’t the liars, or those so willing to listen to them, then maybe we wouldn’t need their debunkers. So far, that isn’t happening. People are not attracted to nature, quite the opposite. Even those that are I’m sure aren’t dialoguing with snails and robins (exceptions noted). Let’s face it, Earthians are not a species connected to its natural environment and they clearly demonstrate that fact every moment of every day in billions of different, indifferent ways. So, being on an alien world that does not speak to them except through cataclysms, the only thing the creatures seem to react to, they have ‘pundits’ to pun-it-into-their brains, whatever “it” happens to be. It doesn’t stay more than a few moments (as always there are exceptions) but at least some are saying things that make sense, regardless of what agenda they are pushing, or how many wheels it has. I read Monbiot’s column, I don’t read the Guardian because, well, most of what they have to say I’m already overdosing on and some is better explained on blogs I tend to follow. So if a walk in nature does it for you, that’s a great bonus. I too enjoy nature though I am fully aware of my alien nature regarding this world and I don’t have an emotional attachment to it at all. It is a cruel world with its predator-prey modus operandi which I would certainly correct if I had the power to do so. There are better ways to proceed, and better worlds to do them on.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.