Nearly all life on Earth is powered by photosynthesis, in one way or another. There are a few interesting exceptions- microbes that can eat sulfur and fungi that can eat radiation, for example, but well over 99% of all living things depend on the sun for their energy. This includes you. No matter what you ate for lunch today, the energy you got from it came from sunlight.
Even if you eat a diet consisting entirely of bacon, the energy contained in that fat and protein came from what the pig ate, that was ultimately plant based. Plants and algae are what we call “Photoautotrophs”- organisms capable of self-nourishment from sunlight. All animals, fungi, and non-photosynthesizing organisms are merely along for the free lunch provided by photoautotrophs. Without them, we would not exist. Period.
So, all humans are solar powered. Which raises an interesting question: just how much sunlight, exactly, does it take to run a person? It turns out we can approach the question from a few different angles, and come up with a remarkably accurate ballpark.
First, lets start with what has already been done. In the early 90s, eight people were sealed into a 3.14 acre greenhouse called Biosphere 2. The project was a failure in many ways, but they did successfully sustain 8 people on sunlight alone for nearly 2 years. According to wikipedia, 83% of the the crews diet came from a 27,000 sqft garden plot (the rest came from other non-garden parts of the biosphere). So we need to multiply by 1.17 to account for the missing 17%, and they also reported being pretty hungry, so lets multiply that by 1.3 instead, to account for the missing 17%, plus a little more.
That puts us at 35,000sqft, divided by 8 people, which yields a solar footprint of 4300 sqft per person. And that’s using 90’s technology and pretty traditional row-crop farming techniques. So we can take this as our upper bound of intensive farming. This is the photosynthetic efficiency that has ACTUALLY been achieved by real people in real life using existing technology, so we know that this is a realistic figure.
Maximum Theoretical Efficiency
But what about coming at it the other way? What is the theoretical minimum amount of space that it would take to power a human? For this we can look to “solar irradiance” or insolation. There is actually really good data on this, because this information is used in the solar industry for calculating power output. Solar irradiance is measured in kilowatt-hours per square meter per day. A kilowatt-hour is a unit of power- the amount of energy it takes to provide 1000 watts for one hour. To put that in perspective, one kilowatt hour would power ten 100watt light bulbs for an hour.
[Note: it’s important to remember that even though solar irradiance is measured in watts- the same power units that as electricity is measured in, it is not the same as electricity. Converting light energy into electricity requires some conversion process, like solar panels, which are only around 12-20% efficient at that conversion. Irradiance is a measure of total available theoretical power, not available electrical power.]
Units of power can be converted from one unit to another, and another unit of power we use is the calorie. This gets a little confusing because a calorie is a unit of power, but what we call a food “calorie” is actually 1000 calories, or one kCal. People just call them “calories” because it’s easier to say.
Anyway, the average annual solar irradiance in a place like Portland, Oregon, is about 5.5kWh/M2/day. That converts to 4732 kcal (theoretical food calories)/M2/day. But plants are only capable of about 3-6% photosynthetic efficiency- the amount of incident sunlight they can convert into biomass.
So assuming 3% photosynthetic efficiency, that yields about 142 food calories per square meter per day. A person needs about 2500 calories (kcal) per day, so that means about 17.6 square meters, or 190 square feet to feed a person in Portland Oregon.
But of course, thats the ANNUAL AVERAGE. Anyone who has ever spent a winter in Portland knows that December doesn’t see much sun. In December, the solar irradiance in Portland drops to just over 1kWh/m2/day. How much space would you need to feed a person on just that? About 1000 square feet- or a 30×30 foot rectangle.
Not bad eh? Of course, to do that, you would need to utilize ALL of that space for photosynthesis, which is just not possible using traditional farming techniques. HOWEVER, there is a way to do it: Micro-algae.
Spirulina is a photosynthetic cyanobacteria. It is one of the simplest photosynthetic organisms that exists. Spirulina is 74% protein and could theoretically provide all the nutrition a human needs- not that you necessarily would want to, but you could. Spirulina can be cultured in flat photo-bioreactors- basically solar panels for food. Spirulina also has a 3%-6% efficiency, so our estimate of 3% might actually be on the conservative side.
In theory, a single city lot in Portland, which is 5000 square feet, if covered in algae panels, could feed 5 adult humans in the dead of winter, and 30 adult humans in July.
But of course, that’s theory- something to strive for. Now let’s take a look at another real life example, and let’s take sunlight out of the equation entirely.
Freight Farms are hydroponic vertical farms that are built into shipping containers. They use high efficiency LED lights that are tuned to the exact frequencies of red and blue light that plants need, and use no sunlight at all. Basically, they convert electricity into food. It’s an entirely new approach to farming that has only become possible with the advent of LEDs and hydroponics. Obviously, it takes A LOT of electricity to do this, and that electricity has to come from somewhere, usually fossil fuels, so this approach isn’t exactly sustainable. But since the system removes the variability of weather, it does provide some interesting control data.
According to their website, a freight farm produces 500 heads of lettuce per week. A head of lettuce is about 35 calories(kcal), so thats about 17500 calories (kcal) a week, or 2500 calories(kcal) per day- enough to feed one person, assuming you’re cool with eating just lettuce.
But as a baseline, it corroborates the idea that using intensive hydroponics and vertical stacking, enough food to feed a person can be grown in an incredibly small amount of space. A shipping container is 8 feet by 40 feet, or 320 square feet.
So, “How much sunlight DOES it take to power a human?” There is no right answer to this question, of course. It’s a little like asking “How many transistors can you fit onto a silicon chip?”- if we keep trying at it, we will keep getting closer and closer to the theoretical maximum.
But based on the examples above, we can reasonably assume that the amount of space required to power a human is somewhere between 200sqft (theoretical minimum) and 5000 square feet (proven, definitely-already-possible).
These ballpark figures illustrate an important point- it’s really not that much space. Not much bigger, even at the high end, than a typical american home already is.
Think about that. Imagine living in a house that provides all of your food, from sunlight, for free, forever. Imagine that all of the biomass that you don’t eat, along with your feces, is either pyrolized or biodigested, providing electricity, space heating, and cooling while turning those wastes back into a nutrient rich fertilizer, which can then be cycled back into your hydroponic crops, creating a closed water and nutrient cycle and requiring no inputs of fertilizer or water.
Your house would become a living-meta organism, an integrated symbiosis of humans, animals, plants, bacteria, and fungi, powered by sunlight, and sunlight alone.
This would be entirely new paradigm of human civilization, shifting from consumption to production, becoming a photo-autotrophic, photosynthetic society. People would no longer be dependent on oppressive institutions like fossil fuel corporations, or required to work jobs they hate to provide themselves with the necessities of life.
The political and social implications are mind-boggling. I consider this to be the ultimate disruptive technology. It doesn’t quite exist yet, but all the parts already do, and they are just waiting to be put together. I believe a that coordinated decentralized effort could develop this technology into modular and easy-to-build systems and could make the plans available to everyone on earth for free by 2020.
I call this effort the Terrarium Project, but the ideas underpinning it are deeply entwined with other initiatives and movements, such as the Venus Project and Open Source Ecology, and I don’t want to get attached to labels. It doesn’t really matter what you call it. If you are interesting in participating, head over to the signup page! Let’s do this!
Taken as a whole, life on Earth forms a complete, closed, biochemical cycle that is powered almost entirely by sunlight. This cycle is made up of smaller, localized cycles that we call “ecosystems”. Ecosystems exist because very few organism are capable of carrying out ALL of the chemical functions required for their own sustenance and survival. Plants can synthesize molecules from sunlight, for example, but they need bacteria and fungi to break them down again. Ecosystems are complex reciprocal webs of interdependent biochemical reactions, occurring across many different species of organisms.
The current dominant scientific theory of cell evolution is that this same type of symbiotic exchange is what led to the evolution of complex cells. The mitochondria that turn glucose into ATP in all complex cells, and the chloroplasts that synthesize glucose in plant cells, were at one time individual distinct species of simple free-living bacteria. They came to reside within a larger membrane, probably when a larger cell tried to eat them, and ended up living inside the cell, providing useful services and ultimately becoming so intertwined that they began to function as a meta-organism. This is called the “endosymbiotic” theory, and the evidence for it is overwhelming. The process by which entirely new meta-organisms emerge from the cooperation of smaller organisms is called “symbiogenesis”.
Bertrand Russell once famously said that “war does not decide who is right- only who is left.” The same could be said for evolution. We often speak of evolution in terms of favoring “competition” or “cooperation”, but these are both human constructs that imply choice and intent, and that’s not really an accurate description of what evolution is. Evolution is really just the interaction of possibilities over time. By definition, it only determines what combinations and patterns of interactions are able to persist over time. It doesn’t decide what is right, only what works. And what works seems to be neither cooperation nor competition, but a instead a repeating, iterative cycle of BOTH competition AND cooperation.
Competition seems to drive the differentiation of individual species to fill ecological niches. But once those niches are filled, cooperation seems to drive them back together again, creating a balanced web of meta-interactions that eventually leads to the rise of new meta-organisms. These meta-organisms, because of their higher adaptability and efficiency over non-cooperating individual organisms, tend to survive and reproduce, and the pattern starts over again at a higher scale- meta organisms compete to fill ecological niches…and so on. This happened with the complex cell, and then it happened again with the multicellular organism, and then again with ecosystems made up of mutlicellular organisms. It appears that evolution itself has a pulse.
I believe that we are currently in the transition phase from competition to cooperation in the the 3rd (at least) cycle of this evolutionary spiral pattern. We are currently at or near “peak competition” of individual multicellular organisms. Complex multicellular organisms have spread out and colonized nearly all of the ecological niches on earth. Mega-fauna, such as the dinosaurs and large land-mammals, have all gone extinct- it seems that we have hit the upper limits of how big a single multicellular animal can be. Humans have evolved complex thought and the ability to reason, problem-solve, plan, and manipulate the world to serve our purposes- an adaptation that has given us a huge competitive advantage over almost every other living organism on Earth.
Our intellect has made us SO successful at the competition game, in fact, that we’re killing off nearly everything and converting its biomass into human bodies at an unprecedented rate- including the organisms that make up the ecosystems that sustain us. Because of this trend, very soon, it will become evolutionarily unfavorable for humans to continue our previous pattern of competition- this point is peak competition. Continuing to compete after peak competition will lead to death, and evolution, by definition, only favors patterns that lead to more life. Cooperation thus emerges from peak competition because it is the only possible way for evolution to move forward towards higher complexity.
To imagine what the transition from peak competition towards peak cooperation might look like on our macro scale, lets look back at the example we know the most about on the micro scale- the evolution of the complex cell. Photosynthetic bacteria (proto-chloroplasts) and decomposing bacteria (proto-mitochondria) evolved and existed separately for billions of years (between one and 2 billion years). It is likely that they often lived near each other, and each benefitted from the diffuse services provided by the other.
But they only became a meta-organism when they became enclosed within a cell membrane. The membrane contained the reciprocal chemical reactions, kept them from floating away from each other, and protected the bacteria from environmental changes. It provided a sanctuary, so that the organisms inside could rely on each others services in a way that was not possible in an open environment.
Our modern ecosystems are a similarly diffuse symbiotic relationship off plants, animals, fungi, and bacteria. These interactions happen in an open environment, not within a membrane. This means that we, like those simple cells, are very susceptible to climactic changes, environmental degradation, and supply chain break down. As these conditions continue to break down due to environmental destruction caused by increased human activity, it will become harder and harder to rely on the external ecosystem services we were once able to rely on.
What if we could take the reciprocal biochemical reactions present in our external modern-day ecosystems, and contain them within a membrane, just like complex cells did for simpler cells? Well, we can. And I believe that if we do, we will not just be creating a new kind of house or dwelling- we will be creating a whole new kind of living meta-organism through the evolutionary pattern of symbiogenesis. A meta-organism that is particularly well-adapted to compete in a world of an uncertain climate and a growing human population.
It doesn’t matter which specific organisms are present in an ecosystem, so much as it matters what functions they perform. You can’t have an ecosystem made up of ONLY plants, for example, because plants aren’t able to decompose themselves- they need bacteria and fungi to do that. All ecosystems must have at least one producer that can turn sunlight into chemical energy, AND at least one decomposer, that can break those molecules down again. Most ecosystems also have consumers, which are just big decomposers that are higher up the food chain (you are here). What’s really interesting is that beyond that basic pattern- producers, consumers, decomposers- organisms can be mixed and matched in ways that have never, ever, existed in nature. Its all about function, not origin.
Take aquaponics, for example. Aquaponics is a popular method of raising fish, often tilapia, and using the waste from the tilapia to fertilize hydroponic vegetable crops, which in turn filters the water for the tilapia. You can grow all kinds of vegetables this way, including greens, tomatoes, squash, and many other plants. Tilapia are an african river fish. They did not evolve to form an ecosystem with tomatoes or squash. But it doesn’t matter. They serve a function- produce fertilizer- and the plants- almost any plants- can use that fertilizer. It doesn’t matter if they ever did that in nature. You can look at individual organisms as “legos”. They can be mixed and matched according to their function in a near-infinite number of combinations.
Fire was one of humanity’s first inventions. We figured out how to start and control the self-sustaining chemical reaction of combustion. A modern combustion engine is still basically just a fire, but the reaction is contained and controlled to maximize a desired output (rotational power), using a standardized input (fuel). Life, although far more complex than fire, is also a self-sustaining chemical reaction, and humans can contain and direct it’s reactions just like we did with fire.
Take a biodigester, for example. In your gut, and the gut of ruminants such as cows, there are anaerobic bacteria (Archea, to be specific, which aren’t technically bacteria, but we won’t get nitpicky today). These little organisms eat molecules in the absence of oxygen, and produce methane. This biological reaction is why humans fart. Left uncontained, this reaction can be unpleasant- producing a foul smell and sometimes a dangerous buildup of flammable gas. A biodigester is to the process of anaerobic digestion what an engine is to the process of combustion. It is a human-designed system that contains and directs the reaction for maximum benefit and reliability. A properly built biodigester does not smell, is not explosive, and reliably turns biological waste into flammable fuel and high grade fertilizer.
Another example would be hydroponics. Hydroponics is growing plants without soil, by directing nutrient rich water over their roots. This process contains and directs the process of photosynthesis and plant growth, and requires no soil, no tilling, and no weeding, and loses almost no water.
The point I’m trying to make is that human thought and understanding can be applied to design systems and machines that direct, contain, and package biological and chemical processes into discrete modular units with reliable inputs and outputs. We can call these “technologies” but many people (erroneously) believe that technology and ecology are inherently opposed. I disagree. Technology is just tool-making. We can design tools that work with biological systems, rather than against them.
Since it doesn’t matter what organisms or processes are utilized, as long as all the functions of build-up and break-down are met and balanced, humans can design whole ecosystems that can sustain human life at a high standard of living, produce no waste, and that can be powered by sunlight alone. But we can’t just throw everything into a greenhouse. We need to have modular designs and inventions that contain and direct those reactions, and the flow of energy and material through them, in reliable ways.
These modular inventions are what I call “components”. A component is a specific invention or design that contains and directs a chemical or biological process to produce a reliable result. If you search the internet or YouTube, you will find that there are thousands, perhaps millions, of people working on various inventions that would be useful components in building a whole ecosystem. I can’t link to all of them here, but here are 5 good examples:
This biodigester that converts waste in methane. (decomposer)
This Gasifier that turns wood chips into fuel to run an engine (decomposer)
This Microbial Fuel Cell that turns biomass into electricity (decomposer)
This Hydroponic garden system that grows plants without soil. (producer)
This Algae Bioreactor that turns sunlight into biomass. (producer)
Each of these components could be part of a potentially running ecosystem, the same way an engine or radiator could be parts of a potentially running car. Like a car, the functions and interactions of each individual part must be balanced and well designed. Also like a car, none of the parts are as useful by themselves as they are when they are part of a running system.
There are literally thousands of these systems that people are building all over the world. Each one has inputs and outputs. The better the design and documentaiton, the more reliable and measurable these inputs and outputs are. And many of them are well-documented and being built by normal people with normal tools out of readily available materials. This means they are often easily replicable.
You can think of these inventions as scientific experiments that people are doing. Science is founded on the the belief that if something is true, then people should be able to independently reproduce the results of an experiment by reproducing the methods of the experiment. The same is true of these inventions people are building. If these systems actually work, their results should be reproducible. This may seem obvious, but it’s an important point.
If the inputs and outputs of well-designed components, like grow beds and biodigesters, are reliable and measurable, and we can assume that the results people are getting are reproducible, then it should be possible to model the interactions between different components with reasonable accuracy in a virtual design space, without having to actually build them and connect them in real life first.
For example, we if we know that a specific type of biodigester produces 5 gallons of fertilizer per day, and we know a specific type of grow bed takes 10 gallons of fertilizer per day, we can assume we need to build two of those biodigesters to meet the fertilizer needs of the grow bed, and if we do, we can assume we’ll get 200lbs of vegetables from the grow bed every 3 months.
These numbers will never be perfect, of course, but that’s not the point. It gives us a way to make ball-park assumptions based on real, hard data about real systems that already exist, but that have never been connected together in real life. If all of the components can be built in real life individually, and their inputs and outputs are even reasonably reliable and accurate, then whole theoretical eco-systems made up of these components could be designed without the need for any prototyping.
Some components have complex, unpredictable outputs, or non-linear inputs and outputs, or outputs that are functions of inputs, etc. But the number of these components is actually pretty small. Even a system as unpredictable and complex as a human being and can be reasonably reduced to: takes 2 liters of potable water and 2000 calories of food per day, produces 1.5 liters of urine and 400g of feces per day. Again, those numbers are not perfectly accurate and ignore gas exchange, but they are accurate enough to design with.
Why does all this matter? It matters because we ALREADY HAVE all of the parts we need to design human dwellings that “run” on sunlight the way a car runs on gasoline, that can support human life indefinitely without the need for any (or minimal) external resources at all. We don’t need to wait for political reform. We don’t need to fight a rebellion. We just need to put the pieces together, and we will create the ultimate disruptive technology- the ability for people anywhere to sustain themselves on sunlight alone.
And with design software, we could rapidly design not just one of these systems, but thousands of them, each made up of different combinations of thousands of individual parts to be perfectly adapted to every possible biome and climate on Earth. None of the parts required are particularly high-tech, either, and people have been inventing them for centuries. But again-it’s like a car- it requires ALL of the parts to be put together in just the right way in order to run. Just having solar panels, or just having a composting toilet, or just having a garden, is cool, but its not enough to make real change. Its like having a car up on cinder blocks in your back yard. We already have all the parts, we just have to figure out how to put them together and get them running. We are closer to radical, global change than many people think.
When all of those components are connected together into a larger, functioning, reciprocal system that mimics the symbiotic relationships found in our cells and ecosystems, then the people who live inside will not have to “work” for a living, in the traditional sense. The necessities of life would be provided to you by your house, for free, from sunlight, forever. Imagine you much harder your life would be if you have to consciously think about breathing. But you don’t- your autonomic nervous system does that for you, so you can think about other things- like how to build open source biospheres. Imagine NOT having to think about where your food is coming from, or energy, or water? Imagine not having to pay for any of those things ever again.
Your “job” would be simply maintaining your macro-biome and keeping it healthy, the same way you maintain your body (your micro-biome) and keep it healthy. And doing both would be much easier when you are living on a diet of freshly harvested year-round home-grown organic vegetables in your climate controlled greenhouse.
By building these systems within a contained “membrane”, such as a greenhouse (or other transparent structure), we can control the environment and the reactions that take place within it. We can retain and recycle water and other nutrients and keep them from “floating away”. And since the membrane can create an internal microclimate no matter the outer climate, the designs to build them would be adaptable to a wide variety of places and climates around the world- similar to the way that complex cells gained an advantage by containing microbes within their membrane and becoming meta-organisms.
In case of emergency, don’t break the glass
Even before we messed up the climate, we lived in a precarious universe. The more we learn about the universe, the more we realize how much stuff we should to be worried about. Such is the price of knowledge. A good example is solar flares, or CMEs (Coronal Mass Ejections). Up until a few hundred years ago, we didn’t know much about the sun, so we didn’t really worry about it. We now know that the sun is basically a giant swirling storm of fusion-fueled plasma. Sometimes it has good weather, and sometimes it has bad weather. When it has bad weather, it sometimes erupts and spews charged particles far out into the solar system. A direct hit by one of these (relatively common) flares would induce a voltage into our modern industrial power lines, and basically melt all the transformers that make up the global power grid everywhere on Earth, simultaneously. How many spares do we keep on hand? Not nearly enough. And actually, a flare EXACTLY like this happened as recently as 1849, known as the Carrington Event. But in 1849, all it did was cause some really awesome aurorae, and mess up some telegraph lines. No big deal.
If the same magnitude of event happened now, it would fry our global centralized electric grid beyond repair, fry our electronics, our servers, GPS, and scramble all of our electronic storage. The internet, electric power, and all unshielded computers would all be down beyond repair. And the sun is about 8 light-minutes from earth. We would get, at best, 12 hours warning (because charged particles move slower than light does). Have you made a backup paper copy of wikipedia yet?
It is difficult to talk seriously about planetary-scale disasters such as these for one subtle but obvious reason- no one alive on Earth today has ever lived through one. And people are talking about the world ending all the time. So for our entire lives we’ve heard people claim the world is going to end, and for our entire lives it hasn’t, and therefore all claims that the whole world is in danger automatically seem alarmist and incredible. I assure you, they are not. Here is a list of “Exinction Level Events” that are actually quite statistically likely to occur during your lifetime or the lifetime of your children.
-Solar Flare- Destroys all unshielded electronics and destroys the global electrical grid.
-Catastrophic Climate Change- Changes weather patterns leading to drought, famine, and mass migration.
-Global Pandemic- Spreads rapidly and leads to massive death tolls in concentrated population centers.
-Super Volcano Event- Spews ash and CO2 into atmosphere and creates “mini-ice age” lasting 2-5 years.
-Asteroid Impact- Localized destruction and global climate change similar to super volcano.
-Nuclear War/Fallout- Renders surface of Earth uninhabitable by humans and most living things.
-Overpopulation- Number of people outstrips capacity of centralized resource chains, leads to conflict, starvation, and increased risk of climate change, pandemic, and nuclear war.
In the event of ALL of these potential disasters, the ability to rapidly create whole ecosystems that can sustain human life in a contained environment from sunlight would be one of the most effective was to mitigate the most disastrous effects of the disaster.
-Solar Flare- The metal frame of a greenhouses could easily function as a faraday cage, shielding any electronics within. Even if not, since all electrical generation takes place on-site from biomass and solar, destruction of centralized power grid would not affect quality of life.
-Catastrophic Climate Change- Ability to maintain a microclimate and contained ecosystem allows for unpredictable weather to occur without jeopardizing food supply.
-Global Pandemic- Ability to seal a system off would be an effective quarantine, and reducing population in cities would reduce spread of disease.
-Super Volcano Event- Microclimate allows for growing plants year round, and helps weather climate changes.
-Asteroid Impact- Same as super volcano.
-Nuclear War/Fallout- Glass and water, as well as air-filtration systems can block harmful radiation while still passing life-sustaining sunlight.
-Overpopulation- Ability to produce food from sunlight in areas previously considered uninabitabe, such as oceans and deserts, would drastically increase the space available to accommodate a growing population while we figure out how to stabilize population and climate.
“It is easier to ship recipes than cakes and biscuits.”
Most of the components required to build a fully functioning ecosystem are easy to build out of materials that are readily available all over the world. Car parts, it turns out, are great source of parts, since they include heat exchangers, engines, pumps, catalysts, generators, and are already mass-produced and available all over the world. Having instructions for how to build certain designs from locally available materials available for free online will make it easy for people around the world to replicate them. Very little should have to be shipped, and shipping information is free. And that’s how things stand right now.
In the future it should be possible to design many of systems so that they can be fabricated directly by computer controlled manufacturing techniques, such as 3D printing and CNC routing. For example, people are already 3D printing entire houses out of concrete. Since these printers can print almost anything that can be designed in 3D (subject to the laws of physics) it should be possible to design buildings that integrate things like biodigesters, grow beds, ceramic water filters, gasifiers and water storage into the structures themselves, using only cheap and widely available materials such as sand, clay, earth, and gravel.
This opens up a whole new realm of possibilities. If we can consider these structures to be meta-organisms, because they are integrated symbioses of many smaller organisms contained within them, then the last criterion left for considering them to be not metaphorically, but literally, alive would be the ability to grow and self-replicate. With 3D printing and digital design files, these structures would be able to do just that. They could take in sunlight and material from their environment, and grow it into complex structures, including copies of themselves, or even the most new-and-improved versions available on the internet.
The internet database of components would become a digital meta-genome of all possible expressions that all of these dwelling would be capable of synthesizing at will. All designs uploaded to the database would immediately be replicable by all structures all over the world leading to the swapping of designs and ideas the same way bacteria swap genes in their DNA.
Look, I know this all seems far out, but it’s really not. This is all totally within reach. It may seem drastic and unprecidented, but hey, these are the times we are living in. Compared to the alternatives, its actually a remarkably preferable future, in my opinion. Everyone knows that things are going to need to change drastically for us to survive the next century, and no one really knows what’s going to happen. We seem to be in a limbo stage between paradigms. Political reform at the nation-state level seems unlikely to make any real difference before climate change and ecological collapse ruin everything. Armed rebellion against the ruling elites is a dangerous and terrifying option that is unlikely to really solve the underlying issues anyway. Everyone just going back to the land is not viable because there is not enough arable farmland for everyone to go back to farming the old way, and our population is rapidly growing. And colonizing Mars would require us to design regenerative systems anyway, so we might as well just do it.
Cheap, replicable, contained structures that can produce ALL of their own food, process ALL of their own waste, create ALL of their own energy, and clean and recycle ALL of their own water using sunlight alone are absolutely possible and would fundamentally alter the course of human history. It would open up wide areas of marginal land such as deserts, tundra, abandoned industrial sites, shallow oceans, lakes, arid grasslands, and other remote areas to viable, self-contained human habitation, taking population pressure off cities, and allowing us to accommodate a much larger population without further ecological destruction. It would create decentralized, redundant, regenerative resource systems that could replace our failing centralized, antiquated, and corporatized resource systems. And it would obviate the need to “earn a living” in the traditional capitalist sense.
This is how we do it …(this is how we do it)
OK, so I’ve made my case. You may or may not agree with all of my assumptions or points, but at least you know what I’m thinking about. So, say you want to see this happen, too. How do we do it? Well, I think the first thing we need to work on is the software. I think that because it doesn’t require any physical investment to build, and once built, it would faciliate the rapid development of MANY designs simultaneously, not just one at a time.
Currently, without standardized design software, interactions between systems have to be mapped out by hand using complicated and non-standardized webs and charts, and they have to be prototyped in real life, which is very slow and very expensive.
With an online design tool, anyone who is interested in participating in the project could browse a library of components (documented, replicable, already-existing designs and inventions) and connect the inputs of each component to the outputs of others to create theoretical regenerative ecosystems. It would be very much like a game, and the goal would be see who can build the most efficient designs, that can be built for the least amount of money, that require the least amount of external resources. No design will be perfect, but every attempt will get better and better.
The website I imagine to do this would be built specifically to allow users to collaboratively and systematically turn ideas and theoretical designs into real life, tested prototypes, and finally stable, open-source, peer-reviewed designs. This work flow would be at the heart of all interactions that take place on the website. The website would have 3 main page types- Users, Components, and Systems. The basic flow the website would be that users create systems out of components. Users can create new systems, or new components, and ALL systems and components that are created are all open and visible to ALL users.
The ideal component page would accurately describe the performance of a real-life invention or process, and would include whatever information is necessary for someone to replicate those results for themselves. Under ideal circumstances, a user would be able to follow instructions or information provided on a component page to build their own version of the invention or process, and be able to reproduce the exact same performance results.
Components would go through three stages on their way to becoming reproducible.
Theoretical-These types of components describe the performance of theoretical components that either have not been invented yet, or have not been added to the database yet. It represents an invention that serves a purpose that cannot be met by any of the components in the current component library. This type of component can be used as a placeholder in a system. It basically says, “If we has a component that did this, we could do this…” Theoretical components are an open design challenge for engineers and tinkerers who can try to develop a real-life built component that matches the performance of the theoretical component.
Built– When an engineer or inventor invents a component that meets the criteria of a theoretical component, it can level up to being a built component. This is the stage that most YouTube How-To videos are currently at. People have documented the performance of a device they have actually built, but no one else has confirmed their results. At least a picture gallery, preferably a video, and reported or claimed results is required at this stage.
Verified– If a built component has compelling results and credible, detailed documentation, others will naturally try to replicate it. When they do this, they are encouraged to “fork” the original component, and make their own component page, documenting their own results and whatever revisions or improvements they made to the design. These results form a reputation for the component, like an eBay seller rating. The more replications/forks a component has that show similar results, the more reliable it is, because it has been tested and replicated. This would be analogous to a “Stable” software release.
Systems take the input/output data provided on each component page, and visually models the interactions between two or more components over time. Users can drag the inputs and outputs of different components can connect them together. The software crunches the numbers. Users can share their design with other users. If the design has assumptions or connections that are invalid or problematic (“I see you have your blackwater connected to your drinking water….”) other users can comment on the system and make suggestions and improvements. They can also “fork” the system, which takes the exact configuration of componets into their design space, where they can make modifications, and then share the fork with the original designer. Like GitHub, the original designer can then choose to accept or deny the suggested changes.
Systems, like components, go through three stages:
Theoretical- Anyone can build a theoretical system. A theoretical system can utilize theoretical components as well as built or verified components. This is the “Beginner” stage. You can connect anything to anything. You can make up components to fill in gaps. You can rely on untested components. This space is very creative, and theoretical.
Built- In order to move on (level up?) to the built phase, all of the components in the system must have at least “built” status. There can be no theoretical components in a built system, because if a system has truly been built, then all of the components in it must also have been built, by definition. This level requires documentation- at least a video, and all the components must have data and documentation, and there must be information about connections between systems, budgets, the team that built it, etc.
When someone posts and builds a well-documented, credible system, others will want to replicate it. These replications would be “forks” of the original system, meaning they take the original system as their basis, and then modify from there with their own results and modifications. If a system is verified, then it has been independently reproduced by at least one other team. These verified “stable” systems can then be mass-reproduced to rapidly transition us to a photosynthesis economy.
Every person has a unique user account, just like FB, reddit, etc. They can use this identity to interact with other users, components, and systems, and, like reddit, it publicly tracks all of their contributions- which systems and components they’ve created, what they’ve commented on, etc. This creates a digital portfolio of their contributions. This creates reputation currency that allows people to show off their talents.
Specific Pages Needed:
When users log in, they see a dashboard. The dashboard has a list of recent activity and updates- who has responded to or liked their comments, who has updated or forked their systems, who has moved designs from theoretical to built. There is also, “Trending” news, big news that is of interest to the whole group.
This is the primary UI, essentially the FB newsfeed, but for things that actually matter. From here users can click on:
The system editor allows users to create systems out of components.
OTHER USER PAGES
When viewing the pages of other users, users see a portfolio/stats page instead of an activity feed. This shows user info, comments, systems worked on, components added and forked, etc. This is how a user gains reputation currency.
The system library is for searching systems. Possibly can be merged with component library/search
The list/search interface for all existing components. Filterable by status, inputs, outputs, and keywords.
INDIVIDUAL COMPONENT PAGES
Each component and component fork gets a unique page that has a standardized format that users can fill out with their own content, similar to how crowdfunding pages have a standard format that users fill with their own content.
INDIVIDUAL SYSTEM PAGES
Like components, each system has its own unique page and standardized layout.
This is the form that users use to create new components. The form requires certain information including status (theoretical or built), pictures or video, description fields, and input output performance data.
“Make the world work for 100% of humanity in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation, without ecological offense or disadvantage to anyone.” This is the object of the “World Game” that Buckminster Fuller proposed in 1961 as a direct alternative to World War. Bucky envisioned individuals and teams competing and cooperating together in a comprehensive, anticipatory, design science approach to the problems of the world. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?
The problem was that the technology and communication systems required to truly realize his bold vision did not exist during Bucky’s lifetime. In 1971, Thomas Broussard Turner, a friend of Bucky’s, wrote, “The World Game has not yet, in truth, been played; for to play it one needs the computer tools, which are not yet commercially available…The total accurate earth resources data, which the earth resources satellites promise to deliver, in fact still relies on individual, long-hand study through heavy tomes of statistics. Until all of this is facilitated by a fairly expensive physical facility and staff, the World Game is not played-it is merely acted-out by alert students who wish to demonstrate for themselves the relevancy of the metaphor.”
Which was true in 1971. When Bucky died in 1981, the World Game remained not much more than a poignant metaphor.
But A LOT has changed in the past 34 years. Wikipedia came online in 2001. Facebook in 2003. Github in 2007. Kickstarter in 2008. Now, in 2015, the data, information, statistics, computing power, and globally networked communication systems that Bucky anticipated as necessary to actually playing the world game have all actually materialized. Shall we play?
The terrarium project as a sub-game of the World Game
The terrarium project, the goal of which is “design open-source dwellings that can meet 100% of human needs from sunlight”, can be thought of as a sub-game or sub-goal of the greater World Game goal of “Make the world work for 100% of humanity”. Although infinite variants of the World Game could be played, the terrarium project focuses the effort on one specific section of human society, which makes it a little easier to start with. But it doesn’t preclude other people playing other variants with other rules or sub-goals. The terrarium project could be a world game, but not the World Game. The World Game could be an ecosystem of sub-games and sub-goals, much like World of Warcraft or other Massively Multiplayer Online games are made up of infinite quests and sub-quests.
How might the terrarium project work as a game?
According to game researcher Jane McGonigal, all games share 4 key elements- voluntary participation, a goal, rules, and feedback. Goals, like “score the most goals”, makes sure players know what they are trying to do. Rules, like “but you can only use your feet” restrict how the goal is to be achieved, which makes the game challenging and clear. Feedback systems, like points, let people know how they are doing as they try to get closer to the goal. And voluntary participation is pretty self explanatory- mandatory games are not actually games, but systems of oppression. This is exactly why global capitalism is not a game, even though it has a goal (maximize shareholder value), rules (laws and regulations), and feedback (money). But that’s a subject for a different post.
“Design open-source dwellings that can meet 100% of human needs from sunlight, using the least amount of energy and resources possible.” Would probably be a good place to start. A design wouldn’t need to be completely hermetically sealed in order to compete, but bonus points for doing so.
Rules help guide players through the game, and restrict and focus action. Rules, at best, lead to greater creativity, and help players know how and when to participate (how do you know when it’s your turn to play?) How might rules be applied to the terrarium project that would help people participate in clearly defined ways without stifling their creativity?
Well, if the goal is to create open-source biospheres, then a key piece of game play must be actually building biospheres and then documenting the process. If something is not well-documented to the point where it can be easily replicated, it cannot be said to be “open source”. So one rule might be that players MUST submit documentation of their work in the form of a certain set of required information, such as a video, budget, design files, parts list, ecosystem models, and other important content. Posting such content publicly could be considered a “move” in the game.
How will people know how they are doing towards the goal? How will we “keep score”? For this we can look to wildly successful MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role playing games). These games have a huge amount of freedom in how a player can participate in the “open-world” environments, but the ways they choose to participate are recorded in their player stats. Every contribution a person makes or quest they complete is recorded in their characters stats, and so each character reflects the unique personality and style of the person playing the game.
This seems relatively easy to mimic with a simple web interface. A profile or user identity that can participate in quests or challenges would be sufficient feedback to “keep score”. A person could join a team that is working on building an open source biosphere, and all the contributions/interactions that player makes within the project would get recorded. When the team finishes their project and posts their results, videos, budgets, etc, they also post their “credits” kind of like movie credits, which lists every person who contributed to the project, right down to the “gaffers assistant”.
Imagine having an online page that lists every project you’ve ever contributed to, every invention you’ve posted or improved, every system you helped design or helped fund. Imagine being part of the team who invents the key technology that makes the first fully regenerative biosphere possible and going down in history for it. That kind of reputation currency, would be a powerful source of motivation.
Putting it all together- Players, Systems, Components, and Projects
So continuing this train of thought, let’s imagine an online interface where every player gets a unique online profile page, that tracks all of their stats and contributions. Here are the specific ways they could participate in the game:
One way a person could contribute is by adding components to the game. A component is any invention or process with clearly defined and measured inputs and outputs. For example a Human requires an approximate input of 2000 calories of food per day, and 2 liters of water, and puts out approximately 2 liters of urine per day, and 300 grams of feces. This post about an open source Biodigester is a rough approximation of the information that would be included on a component page. A component is an approximate model of an existing biological, chemical, process. A player could add either a new kind of machine that they have invented, or they could research an existing technology and add it as a component. Once there is a library of many components with their inputs and outputs measured, the components could be linked together into whole Systems.
Another way a player could participate is by building a whole system out of components. A system is made up of components, and maps how the inputs and outputs of each component flow into each other, creating reciprocal systems. A player could combine components from the component library together into a whole, theoretical ecosystem. The player could then share this ecosystem design with other players for feedback and discussion.You can see a very, very simple mockup of how this might work HERE. If they come up with a design that seems pretty plausible, they can start building a team of players for a Project.
Projects would be similar conceptually to crowdfunding campaigns. Their goal would be to make a pitch for why a certain action or outcome is desirable, and then invite people to contribute to making it happen. In this scenario the focus would be wider than just crowdfunding is. A single player could start a project to actually physically build a real life version of a virtual system they have designed. They could make their case for why they think their system design is viable, and the kind of help they would need. They could promote their project online and attract the help of builders, architects, designers, and other players with the required skills, and build themselves a team. They could also attract people who might have land for them to build on. Once they have a team, a plan, a budget, and a place to build their project, they could start raising money, like a traditional kickstarter. If they get funded, they can start building.
Alternatively a project could also be a proposal to create a new component, or improve an existing one. The key is that a project always has a tangible product that it seeks to produce that helps the overall goal.
But ultimately, the goal is to design whole, real-life, functioning ecosystems, so lets go back to that example. A system might go through a series of stages.
- Virtual ecosystem design- A virtual proposed combination of components.
- Project building- Building a team, figuring out details, getting funding
- Physical Building- Construction and troubleshooting
- Documentation- Testing, Release of 5 or 10 minute explainer video, release of all relevant files and build notes.
Once a system is built in real life and all of the required information about the build, including budget, videos, build notes, etc are provided and submitted online, the system can be considered to have been “entered” into the game.
Awards- “Winning” the World Game
The World Game is an infinite game, which means there is never a finite winner. Like many of the best and oldest human games, like “Jump the highest”, “Run the fastest”, and “Throw the farthest”, the ultimate goal is actually infinite and unachievable. What is important is to constantly do our best, to shatter records, and to push ourselves towards excellence.
However, celebration of achievement and healthy competition are huge motivators towards excellence. Here’s how I envision “winning” the world game might look like.
Every year, all of the systems that successfully make it to the documentation phase, meaning that they have actually been built and tested and documented in real life, up to a certain standard of detail, are entered into the World Game.
A yearly award ceremony could recognize these projects for different aspects and strengths, similar to how the academy awards recognizes movies for excellence (in theory at least…) in certain categories, such as best picture, best screenplay, best documentary, etc. Or similar to how TED talks are sorted by superlatives like “Most Innovative”, and “Most Jaw-dropping”. In a similar way, projects could be recognized for their efficiency, replicability, style, innovation, and any other categories or areas people would like to recognize and foster healthy competition towards.
A fun variant on this theme might be a bioregional award ceremony that brings together teams from around the world based on their bioregion.
This could be fun because certain bioregions would have more competition than others, and so if there is not much competition in your bioregion or people aren’t playing there yet, then even a very simple project could potentially move on to the world stage. A favorite or most successful design from each bioregion could be chosen each year, creating up to 34 teams all picked from around the world (kind of like the planeteers…). This would be akin to winning a cross between the nobel prize and the olympics, and these teams would get global exposure and recognition, and thus support to continue their work.
Of course the different models of awards could exist side by side, the way that film festivals and awards do.
Well, what do you think? If we want to do this, we have everything we need to do it. To get there, though, there is some work we would need to do. We would have to create some software to help coordinate everything, and then we would have to actually start building biospheres. Is that a game you would want to play? If so, spread the word, and help out if you can! We can do this!
N55 is a Danish artist collective that always seems to be coming up with cool things. Designed by Architect Anne Romme, this greenhouse is an example of “pure-plate” architecture, where the glazing material of the structure acts as the structure itself. The design was modeled in 3D (based on sea-urchin geometry), then CNC routed out of polycarbonate, and thermoformed and bolted together.
With the shapes bolted together, the folding of the material makes it remarkably rigid. The group scaled the idea by replacing the polycarbonate with bent sheet metal, which is still cool looking, but not as cool, at least in my opinion. I love the way the polycarbonate super structure seems invisible. A large-scale polycarbonate greenhouse would be really stunning (and prohibitively expensive).
MITs Mediated Matter Group is pioneering 3D printing in glass. Not only does it look cool, it opens up a whole new world of possibilities for using glass as a building material. 3D printed glass can made with a precise geometrical structure of cavities and crosslinks, allowing for glass panels that are lightweight, yet rigid and strong, and that cannot be produced by any other process. These panels could be filled with insulating gasses like argon or carbon dioxide, evacuated to make vacuum-insulated panels capable of transmitting visible light but blocking heat losses by conduction or convection.
The process is technically difficult, yet conceptually simple. Glass-melting temperatures can be achieved using charcoal gasification, which means the process could be powered by biomass, and the raw materials of silica and old bottles are widely available. There is no reason this technology can’t eventually be replicated by makers around the world.
Using glass would be a huge benefit when designing large-scale terrariums or greenhouses, as currently the best glazing options are transparent plastics, which are difficult to manufacture from renewable sources, expensive, must be handled and disposed of in an ecologically sound way, and decay/yellow over time. A glass-glazed biosphere could thrive for centuries, assuming the people inside do not throw stones.
WASP (World Advanced Saving Project), a group out of Italy, is doing amazing things with large-scale 3D printing. They have just built a 40-foot tall delta printer, the largest delta 3D printer ever built, after proving the technology on their 12-foot tall prototype last year.
“Building BigDelta is much more than a dream come true if we consider that, by 2030, international estimates foresee a rapid growth of adequate housing requirements for over 4 billion people living with yearly income below $3,000. The United Nations calculated that over the next 15 years there will be an average daily requirement of 100,000 new housing units to meet this demand,” the team said in a press release.
Imagine if those new houses were also capable of meeting all of the food, energy, clean water, and sanitation needs of their inhabitants! Since many regenerative technologies such as biodigesters, hydroponic grow beds, rocket stoves, gasifiers, rocket mass heaters are all quite simple, it is conceivable that they could be designed to be built entirely out of clay or concrete and integrated into the structure of a building itself, along with much of the plumbing.
And with MIT currently pioneering structural 3D printing in glass, it is also conceivable that vacuum insulated glass panels could be created from old bottles or sand and integrated into the structure as glazing in order to allow light to enter the space.
This would lead to a high thermal mass, high transparency, earth sheltered habitat that could sustain human life on sunlight alone that could be rapidly built with unskilled labor out of mud and sand.
Many different “species” of designs could exist, and be printed according the climate or geography of the area the house is being printed. A house could even collect the resources required to replicate itself from its environment, and then grow another version of itself using the energy of the sun alone…which begs the question, would these houses meet the criteria for being literally alive?