Artificial Environments Are Turning The World Outside In, But That’s No Way To Save The Planet
Simon Marvin, Jonathan Rutherford, 10 Jul 17

justinjlaw/Flickr, CC BY

When meltwater breached the global seed bank near Svalbard in May, after unusually warm weather, it served as a stark reminder of the need to safeguard humanity’s future in the face of increasing turbulence.

Buried 130 metres deep inside a mountain, the vault was designed to protect the world’s most precious seeds from disaster, to ensure the future of the global food supply. This secure, carefully configured indoor space for threatened ecologies has now, itself, been threatened by the ecological transformation and degradation produced outside by climate change.

Yet for some, the solution is not to continue trying to save the “outside”, but to rework and intensify previous efforts to make new outsides – inside. More and more attempts are being made to create new synthetic environments, which reproduce an artificial “outside” within enclosed membranes.

These controlled environments are seen as a way to overcome the constraints and uncertainties of an increasingly turbulent and unstable outside world. Artificial, synthetic and hybrid ecologies, some of which bear no resemblance to the natural world, are becoming a major feature in urban landscapes across the globe. Efficient, technologically controlled “designer” environments are rebundled and repackaged for food production, plant and animal conservation – and even human occupation.

Urban farming in action.  Demipoulpe/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

For example, synthetic environments are being configured as spaces for the production of food, crops and plants as rainfall and temperature changes due to climate change cast uncertainty over future agricultural productivity. “Precision” food production is taking place under technologically controlled “inside” environments, where temperature, humidity, water and light are managed and tailored to facilitate optimal conditions for food production, and alleviate the problems of risky and unsustainable “outside” growing environments.

Vertical farming has taken off in a number of US cities using hydroponic or aeroponic techniques, which require less water and soil than normal farming. Bespoke algorithms and sensing devices ensure growing conditions are tailored and monitored for particular crops – and grow boxes are stacked high to produce crops in dense and confined urban spaces. Disused air raid shelters in London and shipping containers in Boston are being appropriated for salad leaf and herb production. And Ikea now sells a full range of indoor gardening kits for apartment dwellers who do not have access to outside space.

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