A Vast Need for Scarce Space
Montreal, December 2005

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This page is about one path society might take in the future - the battle for surface area.

Expanding cities and farmland have been competing for surface area for ages. Nowadays you can see this best in the way suburbs continually push into farmland, displacing farmers yet allowing for larger city populations. City folk have always coveted surface area; they want their big lots, unimpeded views, lush backyards, and sun streaming through their windows. At the same time city folk pleasures like parks, malls, roads, and highways steal a little more farmland each year. Food producers search for surface area too – in Brazil the rainforest is being cut down at very rapid rates as farmers expand into terrain formerly occupied by nature. All over the world parks are encroached on, hillsides terraced, and marshes dredged to make room for crops.

Suburbs displacing farmers
from smartgrowthamerica.org

competition for the world's surface area
Though habitation and food production have always competed with each other for surface area, often at the expense of nature, a third contender for scarce room is emerging: energy . The facilities that produce our energy – oil, coal, nuclear, and gas plants – have never taken up much space. A nuclear plant is small but packs a large punch, and oil, gas, and coal are all found underground, saving a lot of space for all parties involved.
But as fossil fuels like oil and coal get increasingly rare, new types of energy will be increasingly utilized that are surface-area intensive. Solar panels operate on the same principle as a crop of wheat – both are exposed to the sun’s energy, this energy subsequently transferred into something usable by man – food in the one case and electricity in the other. Solar, like agriculture, requires large expanses of surface area. At first panels will be installed in places with spare surface area like roof tops and deserts. But once these are gone, the future solar entrepreneur will inevitably enter into competition for space with the food producer and the city inhabitant. Put some panels in the prairie and that’s one more place where you can’t grow wheat.
"Put some panels in the prairie and that’s one more place where you can’t grow wheat."

Smoke and dust rise after demolition efforts begin in the town of Guizhou in Central China’s Hubei Province to make way for the Three Gorges Dam Project . Photo: China NewsPhoto, 2002

China’s Three Gorges Dam is a great example of the fight between energy, habitation, and food production for scarce surface area. 600 feet high and 400 miles long, the dam is expected to reduce China’s dependence on oil and coal as energy sources, yet will also drown more than 100 towns once the water starts to rise. Government estimates say 1.2 million people will be resettled, including some 300,000 farmers. Unfortunately, the land being flooded is some of China’s most fertile. This is one of the more extreme examples of the displacement of habitation and food production by energy. The trend will only accelerate in the future.
Alternative fuels such as ethanol and biofuels are trumpeted by many as alternatives to gasoline for cars. Because they are produced from crops like soybeans and corn, both fuels will compete for surface area with food producers. A bushel of corn harvested for ethanol, after all, is a bushel of corn no longer destined to feed mouths. Putting more biofuel in your SUV means less soybean products in your belly.

"a bushel of corn harvested for ethanol is a bushel of corn no longer destined to feed mouths."

The world covered by solar panels - "The understated ability of energy to gobble up surface area"

Which brings us back to the idea presented in the first picture at the top - the vista filled with wind turbines, and the one above - a world covered by solar panels. Energy has a terrifically understated potential to gobble up surface area, especially if we continue to expect materialistic progress and an energy intensive way of life. Gone will be oil politics in the future, only to be replaced by surface area politics. In the future, energy, habitation, and food production will all compete for scarce space. We will have to learn how to promote harmony and cooperation in order to ensure this space is used wisely.

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