Communication intercept reveals 21st century cities were alien food project

Well, enough of all that politics. Let’s talk phosphates instead. And cities. And who better to talk about them than Small Farm Future’s favourite agronomist, Andy McGuire? Andy first featured on here back in 2014 when I cast him in the role of the devil. He shrugged off the slight with impressive sang froid (though perhaps that’s only to be expected…) and since then has regularly pitched in on this site with various telling comments. Andy has beaten Leigh Phillips to the podium as our first ever guest blogger here at Small Farm Future after Leigh accepted my offer of a right of reply to my critiques of his overheated onslaught against the green movement. Leigh’s reply never did come my way, but funnily enough he enthusiastically references Andy in his Austerity Ecology book in relation to Andy’s criticisms of the ‘balance of nature’ concept. I’d be interested to hear what Leigh makes of Andy’s thoughts below. Though, on reflection, not that interested – just as well, really, as I doubt I shall ever find out. Anyway, I gather the post below was orphaned from another website, and I thought it deserved to see the light of day. Over to Andy…


Communication intercept reveals 21st century cities were alien food project.

Intercepted communication of Earth Concentration Project leader, 2016, between Outpost Dq12 and exoplanet HD 40307g. Translated to English, NSA technical bulletin 358G.

“Our concentration program is progressing well sir. In fact, their own collective has observed that in 35 years, two-thirds of them will be in CAFOs [closest term we have for this word]. In one of their political entities, the USA, we have over 70% of the human population in our CAFOs”

“Are there any signs of rebellion?”

“Not really. In fact, instead of resisting, they continue to work on how to mitigate the problems of concentration rather than fighting the process.”

“How so?”

“Well, they spend a lot of money on waste management. As you can imagine, they produce large amounts of waste in a small area.”

“How can they live like that?”

“They have engineered elaborate systems of pipes, pumps, and treatment facilities to keep the waste generally hidden from sight. Odors are controlled as well as parasites and diseases.”

“How do they supply the concentrates [probably refers to cities/CAFOs] with food and water?”

“Again, they have developed increasingly complex systems that produce food in rural areas and transport it, often for long distances, to the CAFOs where consumption takes place. Water also, is often piped from distant sources to the concentrates.”

“So they keep their production separate from their waste?”

“Yes. They often get their water from undeveloped areas. The majority of their food comes from areas of low population which have been converted to food production.”

“What about the life forms that inhabited those areas previously?”

“They are mostly gone, with the people in the concentrates replacing the former herbivore and carnivore populations and taking most of the production. And since the populations are so separated from their lands, they have brought in animals into what they call zoos, or aquariums for aquatic species.”

“How do they maintain nutrient levels in food production?”

“They have figured out how to fix nitrogen from their atmosphere. The other nutrients are mined, processed, transported and applied to food fields. As you can imagine, this is all very energy intensive, so they have developed complex energy extraction systems that support this food system.”

“And this is all working?”

“Yes, in general. Some people recognize the problems in our CAFO development, and are pursuing local food production, but this will never be able to feed the population concentrates we have obtained. Some of their scientists have realized that they cannot keep mining phosphorus forever, but the solutions are so drastic that no significant action has been taken.”

“Solutions, what do you mean?”

“Oh, they could disperse, returning to former land densities. That would make recycling of nutrients easier, but also seriously jeopardize our efforts.”

“What’s the risk?”

“Very low according to our analysts. Those in concentrates have become accustomed to their environments and would not now choose, at least voluntarily, the rigors of former generations.

In addition, their now well-developed network allows them to stay preoccupied with the latest trivialities from distant locations. They have portable devices that greatly enhance this effect.”

“Hmm, what else have you done to pacify them, until we reach harvest stage?”

“For added safety, we have infected their main network with trivial entertainment, to divert them from our efforts. This has been very successful, and in an ironic twist, they now call our most successful efforts “viral.””

“”Viral”, hah! What else are they up to?”

“Well, although ecologically the CAFOs are problematic in their import of food and production of wastes, we have observed density-dependent emergence of curious performances.”

“What do you mean?”

“They call it opera. It consists of elaborate vocal representations of stories. The physical equivalent is called ballet. These strange developments are seen only in our CAFOs.”

“Hmmm, let’s get our modelers on that, see where it could lead. Anything else?”

“Nothing else at this time.”

“Right. Keep up the good work.”

From July 20th, 2016. Declassified Jan. 15th, 2175, Earth Dispersion Alliance, Committee on Earth-Alien Relations.



35 thoughts on “Communication intercept reveals 21st century cities were alien food project

  1. Gah, it hurts! Like all the unpleasantness of living in a city for two years, coming back at once. In all seriousness though, the bit about distracting is what I rail against the most. Cultural Trivialism is rampant now with people watching television or deified athletics to fill their free time between partying. I used to think people with such habits were the minority, but these days I’m not so sure. Life in cities is much less Orwell and more Brave New World, with the empty joy and decadence. Seems like so-called Peasants’ Republics are all one can muster in resistance; if you can’t beat them, leave them.

    • We should pause for a moment and spare a thought of two for those among us (like myself) who spend some of their days working amongst the trivial people of the city and then other days getting stared at by the same trivial people from the side of the road while planting trees in their orchard.
      I have started to wear my peasant attire at work-work; the dirt becomes me.

          • I merely picked up the term used by our thread starter.
            And to continue to use his words:
            They are people who can’t muster resistance.
            And not because they haven’t got the energy, but because they have invested too much in being trivial in every respect.
            They’re the ones ending sentences not with “…and I’m glad I decided to do it.”, but with “…but then, what can you do?”

            Time to re-write this one then:

  2. Well, an odd way to bring up the topic of peak everything I suppose. Last I heard, we were going to have peak phosphorus in 2030 or so, but as with other commodities, it’s more a function of when supply and demand part ways, rather than actual peak. And rather than quibble over dates, let’s acknowledge that it’s a finite resource, ( as a concentrate, mined mineral) and will run out.

    With price signal feedback, the “peak” will be hard to pin down, and pricing will get volatile as it has been with oil, but the real question for small local food systems is, are we ready or could we ever be ready for agriculture with NO external phosphorus inputs? How long can we recycle the phosphorus currently in our local food shed?

  3. The devil is in the detail: can you elaborate on ‘former land densities’ please?
    I am thinking of the period when the urban population began to overtake the rural one in England (circa late 1800s) when the population total (around 30 million) was less than half current estimates (around 64 million) and how any dispersal might impact the country today.

    • I was not proposing a solution here, only noting that concentration presents a problem with recycling nutrients. Dispersal would help with recycling nutrients, but would cause other problems, especially with today’s populations, as you state.

      • I didn’t realise you were Stateside, Andy. I think you could probably get away with ‘dispersal’ as a partial remedy in countries where there really is space. I don’t believe the same applies to more densely populated places like the UK now. But rather than adopt an urban bad/rural good viewpoint – even though on many levels this can be seen to hold water – maybe there’s more mileage in encouraging people into land use for food and carbon drawdown wherever’s there soil – including, and probably especially every urban plot, allotment, park, school, hospital, care home, sidewalk and strip mall parking lot etc. I realise I’m on the corner of Optimism and Delusion here, but what the hell!

        • You are probably right, we have lots of rural space here. I was definitely not aiming for urban bad/rural good, but only to remind that, as Chris quoted in a previous post of his “there are no solutions, only trade-offs” even in cities.
          The corner of Optimism and Delusion is not the worst place to be – better than the corner of Hopeless and Angry.

        • Given that minimum feasible levels of consumption per capita are roughly the same whether the capitas are urban or rural dwellers, the suggestion that rural dispersal wouldn’t work in the UK amounts to saying that we’ve exceeded national carrying capacity and are dependent on food imports. Maybe that’s true. It raises the question of where the food imports are coming from, and how sustainable they’ll prove in the long-term (probably not very, as I’ve argued here: But it may not be true. That’s essentially the question I’m posing in my blog cycle on a neo-peasant Britain/Wessex. Fortunately, Andy’s post has given me the breather I needed to get back to my spreadsheets – so all will be revealed soon…

          • I will be interested to read if the point you make re. per capita consumption still holds true if you have to factor a new build into the equation. I don’t know how many suitable empty properties there are in Wessex, though I suspect not many. Hence what I believe should be considered in any spreadsheets regarding dispersal to repopulate rural areas with enlightened landworkers (I’m also thinking of Colin Tudge’s proposal for ‘millions more farmers’ in Six Steps Back to the Land) is about individual levels of consumption, though not just of the day to day food and petrol, but of the consumption involved in building new dwellings where necessary.
            Unfortunately we don’t carry our houses on our backs, and though the creation and transport of building materials for new abodes can be done considerately, it seems to me it generally involves a massive carbon footprint, probably the single biggest emission a human might make, just from the decision that they actually need a new home. When done well, these unavoidable emissions could be offset in the expected life of the building; some materials may be taken from the land or nearby woodland it’s true, but realistically, in most cases of new build for a permanent base – even for neo-peasants – they most likely won’t be.
            So millions of low-impact Ben Law-style or similarly environmentally benign buildings: is it scaleable? I would hope so. Is it necessary? The individual will decide.
            Slight diversion: My grandfather provided veg and eggs for his five children from two allotments (approx. 500m2 total) in a mining village, whilst being a miner. Increasingly I’m won over by a similar kind of hybrid peasantry within the (urban) community, thriftily using whatever land is to hand, and though it’s hard to beat country life (having experienced both – generally more land available in the latter), perhaps a mass exodus from the cities isn’t the wisest course available to us. Does that mean sitting on our hands? I don’t know. But I occasionally ponder what our world would look like without human ambition (ok, we need to feed, clothe and house ourselves, but still). But more than that I fear the last straw that breaks the camel’s back, even if the camel is long since overburdened.

          • Thanks Simon – interesting comment, not least because I too had a miner grandfather with a large allotment. I agree with you that making use of urban space for farming is a better starting point than wholesale urban flight (it’s also an untouched margin in my analysis). Though I’m not sure if it’s enough.

            The issue of building is interesting, and not something I’m specifically looking at (the government has talked about building a million new homes – hey, build them in the countryside, with a few acres per house…) Actually, I’ve tried to gather some data on building impacts without a whole lot of success. You could be right that the impact would be severe – on the other hand, there are a lot of existing buildings in the rural and peri-urban landscape that could be used for housing farmers given a different policy environment. And the impact does depend a lot on what you build, and how long it lasts – there’s a lot of potential for small-scale local quarrying (as explored recently in an article by Simon Fairlie) as well as options to use renewable materials. Generally, my feeling is that building farm dwellings tends to be more labour intensive than capital intensive, and mightn’t be such a bad way to go in that respect. Another consideration is the rapid turnover of urban build – around 2-3% per annum on average as I recall from Stewart Brand. That’s a lot of steel and concrete that might be saved in a slower turning, more ruralised world.

          • Chris, what is your thinking on per capita consumption being the same?

            While working for the City of Vancouver, BC, we had some Ecological Footprint estimates done, which found that a “deep green” apartment building would have a footprint about one-tenth that of the average single family home. Even typical apartments tend to be much less energy consumptive because they share walls, thus reducing energy loss.

            Looking at materials flows, via garbage and recycling data, I found apartment dwellers use about one third the resources, per capita. There is some poverty/life-stage consideration, but there is also a lot more sharing through gyms, pools, steam rooms, theatres etc, all being available in the building.

            And, there is perhaps more ‘sufficing’. In a small apartment you own less stuff.

          • Ruben, sorry I’m a bit too busy for the next few days to reply in depth, but it’s an important issue. I was careful to define consumption in terms of ‘minimum feasible levels’ but even so I’ve never been persuaded by the notion that urban life is more sustainable than rural and I’ve written a fair bit about it on this blog and elsewhere. The sort of things I’d like to probe at in this discussion would be:

            * what are the relative impacts of a ‘deep green’ urban apartment and a ‘deep green’ detached rural farmhouse?

            * what are the relative impacts of the average families living in such accommodation and deriving their income respectively from salaried urban work and farming?

            * if it’s greener to live in cities, why do the most heavily urbanized countries have disproportionately high per capita emissions (what Tom Smith has called the ‘Jevons paradox’ or urbanism)?

            Perhaps I’ll revisit the issue in another post when I get a chance. It would be good to thrash these issues around again.

  4. Thanks Chris I will look back into the current Land Magazine for Simon Fairlie’s article, usually the first ones I read. And apologies for going off topic slightly. That said, here’s a recent article that might interest all natural fertilizer fans (imagine slipping a suitable carapace over something like London’s gherkin for our useful feathered friends…)

    • Interesting article, but I wondered what all those pigeons eat and found this – “Pigeons are natural seed eaters and only eat insects in small numbers.” I guess those pigeons must have eaten more wild seed than domestic crops to get a net positive nutrient flow.

      I’m used to wild birds being more of a pest than a benefit when it comes to growing food. I may have to reconsider in the case of pigeons.

  5. As I climb down from my hobby horse, some figures… Let’s say you do quit the CAFO to farm and recycle your own nutrients without the neighbours kicking up a stink about it. A recent Guardian article suggests rough figures of 80 tonnes of CO2 emitted for building from scratch a two-bed cottage, 8 tonnes for a two-bed renovation focussing on energy savings, with the worst option being to leave an old dwelling leaking energy ‘like a sieve’. For self-building neo-peasant wannabes uncomfortable with the carbon footprint involved in attempting a more ‘sustainable’ lifestyle, the so-called ‘zero-carbon’ designs may offer hope but tends to involve lots of concrete for its high thermal mass. Potentially no energy bills and significantly reduced water use though:
    At the other end of the low-impact self-build scale it would be interesting to hear from someone like Lammas member Simon Dale.

  6. Ruben, if you’re sharing walls with neighbouring apartments then you’re onto a winner, all other (building design) things being equal; where you don’t have (as many) external wall temperatures to contend with this should assist with heating. The apartment block or terrace design needn’t be restricted to urban environments though (Hockerton housing project in Notts UK is an interesting example in a village setting). However, even for single dwellings you can achieve similar results with insulation and earth bunding, although on a small farm setting years ago it was more common to house the animals below or abutting the farmer’s dwelling for similar marginal gains in keeping the home comfortably warm.

  7. Chris, discussions of impact are further complicated by what we choose to look at. For example, many people are thinking purely in terms of carbon, whereas I mentioned the Ecological Footprint. I have had the fortune to work closely with some of the developers of the EF, and try to wrap my head around it.

    Ecological Footprint measures the amount of land and ocean area required to produce our resources and absorb our wastes.

    So, producing oil does not have a huge EF, because the drill platform is actually quite small. Some more area for pipelines and refineries, etc.

    But then when you burn the oil you need a substantial amount of forest to absorb the carbon dioxide.

    So, apartment buildings get a boost because they physically occupy less land area, in addition to using less heating fuel thanks to shared common areas and walls.

    I don’t know how ecological footprinting handles systems gone off the rails—how do you attribute the lost land area as sea levels rise and flood the coast?

    Whatever, there is no one metric to Rule Them All. But I like EF because it tries to talk about what is able-to-be-sustained. We currently use about 1.4 planets worth of resources, which means we are eating our seed grains, and drawing down our future.

    As far as why cities use more resources, I think the answer is very simple—dollars. I can’t remember the fellows name, but years ago I read a guy who did quite extensive work on comparing income to impact, and found dollars was a quite reasonable proxy for impact.

    So, the city folks in their tall towers, who don’t own a car and ride their bike or take the bus have a very low impact. They are benefitting from the economies of scale of huge trucks bringing in produce to central points, even if that point is still the farmers market. Economies of scale are working for cities at every turn.

    And then they jet off to Belize for a vacation. I can’t even tell you how many of my friends—working green consultants, for example—who are off to the tropics one or more times each year.

    Dollars equal impacts. They are not spending them on fossil fuels, thanks to the apartment buildings and transit, but they spend it on vacations and other items of conspicuous consumption.

    There simply is no mechanism to constrain to the minimum feasible consumption you mention.

    But for the country farmer, there is a great mechanism—poverty. It is damn hard to make a living as a farmer, and that tends to curtail trips to the tropics.

    If you were to look at people of similarly low incomes as farmers—the folks living in basement apartments and taking the bus everywhere, I think you would find those city dwellers would have a much lower impact than rural dwellers. No old houses leaking heat everywhere, no cars to drive the long rural miles, all the economies of scale of the systems to bring in goods. And, thanks to the value of cities, they may be living in a unit half the size of your average farmhouse.

    Now, as Simon says, there is no reason you can’t have shared walls in rural areas. Your new Peasant Wessex could really take advantage of it—if there are ten families on ten hectares, put them into two fiveplex buildings.

    For all of this, I don’t want you to get the impression I am for cities. I think we need to greatly densify the population in rural areas, and greatly increase the food produced. Cities are simply not sustainable; they are not able to be sustained as they rely on highly refined flows of energy and materials,as well as copious atmospheric and land-based waste dumps, all of which are in dwindling supply.

    What we need to be working on is not how to make this world greener, but rather how to live a life that is able to be sustained. And I think that rhymes much more closely with ‘peasant’.

    And on that note, yet another sticky bit of jam on the spreadsheet; local materials.

    It is all very fine to dream of superinsulated fiveplexes, but that relies on insulation bought in from away, as well as heat exchange ventilators, and windows manufactured someplace like Germany. They can be built for the cost of conventional housing now, but that is still pretty spendy.

    As opposed to the house built out of the rock you are clearing off the field. My wife likes to have the thermostat set at at least 21 degrees, but she may change her tune if she had to fall, cut, haul and split the firewood—perhaps she would find 17 degrees warm enough.

    There is so much of this speculation that is simply unknowable. Do we really need super insulated houses so we can eliminate our heating bill? Or will we balance at a draughtproofed house and some firewood from our forest lands?

    • Thanks Ruben. Much to agree with there – dollars, yep; ecological footprinting, yep; unknowability, yep. I don’t really agree on the question of economies of scale, though. When you trace those huge trucks back to source you surely find that what’s happening in the countryside is largely determined by what’s happening in the city, including the footprints of the rural dwellers and the linearity of the resource flows. I have an article somewhere by Rees & Wackernagel that pretty much makes that point from an EF point of view as I recall. I’m inclined to agree with you about the impossibility of finding a mechanism to constrain consumption, but that’s basically what’s needed and the best shot I can think of is local proprietorship, neo-peasantries, producerist republicanism or whatever else you might want to call it. It does seem to me that a lot of the ‘green city’ rhetoric indeed relies on a very selective choice of what to look at. The other big global issue of course is the vastly increased impacts associated with urbanisation in China and India. Anyway, it sounds like we’re pretty much on the same page. I’ll come back to this.

      • Economies of scale occur – I think this is easily demonstrable. But there can be opportunity costs associated with them in some circumstances. Like all the other aspects of this discussion, you have to be careful how you account for resources and the externalities.

        Food miles represent a sticky metric – but there’s no arguing that if I raise a tomato in a backyard garden, and I pick it and carry it to my kitchen… there are no miles, just the respired CO2 it takes for this old curmudgeon to walk there and back (and I need the exercise anyway) [If I pick a peck of tomatoes – an economy of scale kicks in 🙂 ]

        • Granted that economies of scale are demonstrable. So too are diseconomies of scale. Which is more prevalent? I don’t know, but I think the pseudo-technical language of economics can be normatively misleading in assuming ‘economies of scale’ but for ‘externalities’. And of course utility is essentially a cultural construct. Let us assume, for example, that household self-provisioning is the highest and most sacred goal of a society. Economies of scale suddenly disappear.

          • Yes, diseconomies of scale are huge, and don’t seem to be even seen in our neo-techno-sizeo-fetishistic culture.

            I often talk about the “urban sweet spot”. Without having ever been given a grant to properly study or crunch numbers, my gut feeling is that a good balance of human density with food production, energy harvesting and waste management would looks something like a city of three-story apartment buildings spaced twice as far apart as they usually are (in cities like Vancouver BC).

            The space in between would be used to grow the fragile veg that don’t transport well, raise chickens to manage food scraps and produce eggs and meat, and harvest sunlight for energy. It would also provide space for much more comprehensive recycling collection, and opportunities for scavenger industries like building deconstruction.

            Of course, for me, the gorilla in the room is that there are too many people on this planet, and I don’t have much interest in helping jam more bacteria in our petri dish.

            Which is why I am so interested in the Peasant Future.

  8. Just a point. There is a lot more housing in the UK countryside than their has ever been. It’s just that the wrong people live in those houses. Once the motor car goes away, those who work in the cities and towns will live in the cities and towns, and those who work in the country will live in the country. I expect a lot of cheap accommodation will become available in the next few decades. The greater loss building wise is all the smaller farm buildings scaled for peasant farming. A lot has been converted to housing since the 80’s, but a lot was simply demolished before then as obsolete. Todays huge warehouse sized sheds seen on industrial farms are cold, drafty and just the wrong scale, the largest take 5 minutes to walk from one end to the other! Very inefficient for the modern peasant!

    Regards Philip

  9. Pingback: Communication Intercept Reveals 21st Century Cities Were Alien Food Project – Food and Farm Discussion Lab

  10. Pingback: Communication intercept reveals 21st century cities were alien food project | Agronomist Agriculture

  11. Pingback: Loss of a Small Abattoir and a Small Farm Future – Enjeux énergies et environnement

Leave a Reply to Andy McGuire Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *