Last year, the lady gave me a book for my birthday. At first, I didn't know what to think; it was a small, unassuming paperback with an indecipherable title -- ELIOOO -- written by an author I didn't recognize, Antonio Scarponi. But, as I flipped through the pages, it was clear to me that she had found something that knit together a number of design obsessions I had investigated since childhood, wrapped up in a package straight out of the new maker economy.
In fifth grade, I found the Kid's Whole Future Catalog in the school library and was forever warped by its vision of an integrated green future, where we all lived in arcologies and commuted in velocars. In 7th grade, for Mrs. Mason's geography class, we had to make a 3-foot square diorama of a working farm. Instead of patiently pasting toothpicks to replicate a hundred acres of petrochemically-fed corn, I made a survival pit greenhouse modeled after another library book. James Dekorne's prototype was a solar-heated, self-contained ecosystem that used compost tea to grow plants hydroponically. Rabbits in cages underneath the planters pumped the space full of CO2, which sped photosynthesis. A huge tilapia tank bred fish for eating and worked as thermal mass to store heat after the sun went down. The rabbit crap fed the compost heap, the fish water fed the hydroponic system, and on it went into a meta-hippie version of the Grand Unified Theory.
That book led me to the New Alchemy Institute, a Massachusetts-based outfit of researchers working on what they called "bioshelters." They published a set of journals, dripping with data, that quantified the integrated approach to closed-system managed ecosystem food production in small solar-heated spaces. Later, after college, when I lived out at Arcosanti, I got to experience this sort of research in real time, looking at prototypes for the future energy apron that would power the community.
All of these approaches to food were attempts to find a new way out of the Malthusian inevitability that humans are overwhelming the earth. By using hydroponics, which are more water and energy-efficient than conventional agriculture, and greenhouses, which extend the growing season and reduce energy inputs, these experimenters were growing massive amounts of food in very small spaces. Fish, rabbits, and chicken provided small-scale protein that converted feed efficiently. Growing lots of food in tight spaces would allow for urban agriculture. Excess heat collected by greenhouses could be used for residences and buildings. It could all tie together a localized, self-sustaining economy that provided for all without harming the earth.
Such an approach, called "appropriate technology", was first theorized by economist Ernst Schumacher in 1962. His ideas rested on a set of foundations that is finding new currency today: local, decentralized, small-scale, labor-intensive, and energy-efficient. However, the movement ran into much criticism as it attempted to tackle issues in the developing world, as it was focused heavily on technology and engineering "solutions" and less so on the larger social and economic inequalities that caused the problems in the first place. Again, the current moment is instructive, as we are beholden to the idea that an app can save the world, while the actual painstaking work of community-building goes undone.
All of this brings me back to ELIOOO. Antonio Scarponi, an architect and urban planner, was invited to participate in an exhibition called DADA New York II: Revolution to Smash Global Capitalism back in 2011. Building on earlier work that hacked IKEA parts and experimented with urban food production, he came up with a temporary exhibition that was made of re-purposed IKEA parts and zip ties. After the exhibit was over, he promptly returned all the kits to IKEA and got his money back. He worked the global capitalist machine from the inside, like a virus, sucking up corporate energy and pushing it back out in positive forms.
Scarponi took all of this thinking and research one step further in ELIOO. He presents plans for six different small-scale hydroponic systems that can be built with off-the-shelf IKEA parts, primarily Trofast plastic bins. The simplest model requires no pumps or hardware, just a bin, a hole saw, and some fertilizer solution. They scale in complexity, on up to a three-level system that uses an aquarium pump to trickle hydroponic fluid through a cascade of growing trays. IKEA cooperated with the book; Scarponi self-published it, illustrated with his own drawings, on Amazon's print-on-demand platform. He leveraged a lot of bits of the distributed economy to make, as he calls it, "an instruction manual for a product that only exists if you make it." Brilliant!
This is appropriate technology at its finest, a small-scale distributed system disseminated by unconventional, low-cost, new-media means. While the geodesic greenhouses of my childhood dreams are all well and good, they are big, expensive, fixed systems that require a huge input from the user. Scarponi realizes the limitations of his machines -- they will only grow certain things, and only so much -- but they are radically small and simple, opening up food production to the apartment dweller.
I hope to build one soon, and document it over on Instructables. Until then, I will still be falling asleep to dreams of scrapped-together greenhouses, dull with use but shiny with possibility . . .