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What if Africa was Europe's power plant?

Last week, The Guardian reported that Europe is looking to Africa to serve part of its energy needs by basically turning the continent into one giant solar power plant.

Europe is considering plans to spend more than £5bn on a string of giant solar power stations along the Mediterranean desert shores of northern Africa and the Middle East.

More than a hundred of the generators, each fitted with thousands of huge mirrors, would generate electricity to be transmitted by undersea cable to Europe and then distributed across the continent to European Union member nations, including Britain.

Billions of watts of power could be generated this way, enough to provide Europe with a sixth of its electricity needs and to allow it to make significant cuts in its carbon emissions. At the same time, the stations would be used as desalination plants to provide desert countries with desperately needed supplies of fresh water.

Of course, one is compelled to wonder here what would happen if Africa provided Europe with all of its electricity?

Most likely that won't happen; no European country would want to subject their whole energy security to regional volatility. However, one could imagine a fairly optimistic scenario wherein this energy cooperation would provide a stabilizing force to unstable states, help cure both continents' post-colonial hangover, counteract China's growing geopolitical influence in the region — and all the while reducing carbon emissions to zero.

Kramer Junction, California

But, as always, what we are immediately most interested in is this: in what ways would this energy pact be physically manifested in Africa?

As but one illustration of how energy consumption is spatialized, there is the so-called mountaintop mining, whereby whole mountains are leveled off, literally grounded down, to get at coal deposits instead of using tunnels. The erased geology would then be dumped nearby, chocking streams and old growth forests.

In one of the best (and certainly longest) articles on the subject that we have ever come across, Eric Reece, in Harpers Magazine, writes:

Where once there were jagged forested ridgelines, now there is only a series of plateaus, staggered grey shelves where grass struggles to grow in crushed rock and shale. When visitors to eastern Kentucky first see the effects of this kind of mining, they often say the landscape looks like the Southwest - a harsh tableland interrupted by steep mesas.

In other words, heating up your ex-urbian McMansion is right now turning Appalachia into Arizona and New Mexico.

Lost Mountains

One can easily picture Julie Bargmann and her D.I.R.T. Studio, like ambulance chasers circling a scene of devastation, salivating over photos of negative mountains, scheming away at plans to reclaim them from destruction, waiting for that commission.

Unless, of course, Alan Berger and his Project for Reclamation Excellence (P-REX) don't beat them to the job.

But returning back to our question: what will Google Earth tourists see when they point their vigilant eyes towards an electrified North Africa? Will they come upon vast plantations of coronal fields, perfect geometries arrayed in similarly perfect arrangement, irrespective of terrain but nevertheless finely attuned to the sky? Pure form, pure function coexisting without contradiction.

And what about the people on the ground? Where once was desert, might they now enjoy newly sprouted oases fed with water from solar-powered desalination plants?

An Emerald Necklace of Olmstedian design inscribed in the Saharan landscape.

Al Khufrah Oasis, Libya

Will foreigners descend en mass to undertake a Bowlesian journey, trekking from one incomprehensible terrain to another equally unfathomable recess of the desert, utterly unprepared for the otherness of it all but obviously so seduced that they travel on, even while in the grips of dysentery, losing themselves psychologically and literally to the sands? All bearings and comfort are lost.

Solar updraft tower

And then just as things couldn't get any stranger, they will come upon a stand of solar updraft towers; there are hundreds of them, possibly thousands, forming a kind of arid rainforest mechanically evapotranspirating.

But in their parched and hallucinatory conditions these adventurers will mistake them for Persian tower tombs, divining the surrounding air into a vortex, the whirring blades resonating ghostly howls.
Manila Living
Manila North Cemetery

For the most recent issue of Vice Magazine, the mono-appellated Bahag explored a cemetery colonized by thousands of families who have transformed it into a thriving necropolis.

Tucked within the hyper-saturated Philippine capital, Manila, the denizens (opportunistic urban planners, if you will) of this supposedly counter-urban void have augmented it with some of the trappings of urban living: shared public spaces, vernacular customs, an informal service infrastructure, classrooms and even several karaoke bars.

Manila North Cemetery

Manila North Cemetery

Quoting Bahag:

Some families ended up here almost accidentally. Some inherited the mausoleums that they now live in from their great-grandparents. Others came from the provinces and couldn’t make enough money to live in the big city. In all cases, they’re basically families with nowhere else to go.

The people who live here manage to extract livelihoods from the dead. Teenagers carry coffins for 50 Filipino pesos—about 50 American cents. Children collect scrap metal, plastic, and other garbage to sell. Their fathers are employed to repair and maintain tombs while their mothers maintain the house, which could be the family mausoleum or the mausoleum of their employers. Rent-free shanties are wedged between or on top of crypts.

It's an adaptive reuse carried out at an urban scale, a reflection of economic realities and communal creativity rather than a particular disregard for the dead.

Cemeteries as Major Disaster Response Protocol

“On evacuation and atomization uses his self-energy and on drifting atomization sea waters skywards”
Anti-hurricane machine

After going through Josef Solc's website detailing his designs for an anti-hurricane ship, you will most likely come away unconvinced that his machine will actually knock off hurricanes and typhoons dead on their tracks, or that it would at least dampen their cyclonic strength far down to an appreciable level — that is, kill maybe just one or two people and cause a few million dollars in damages instead of wiping off entire cities and slashing in half the GDP of Haiti.

What you might come away with instead — perhaps apart from a strange liking to the guy's beautifully whacky prose, like Yoda attempting Walt Whitman or a UN interpreter on crack — is a suspicion that the whole thing is merely an elaborate Nigerian scam to bait our grandparents anxious to protect their retirement homes from hurricanes and trick incompetent FEMA directors into parting with taxpayers' money to fund useless disaster mitigation schemes.

But in all earnestness, we don't really care. That thing should be built, regardless of buildability, scientific merit and cost.

Anti-hurricane machine

And then instead of sending it out to sea to wait for the next Category 5 storm, you put it on wheels or, better yet, make it hover on its own aeolian power, after which you let it loose on your own private national park, totally misunderstanding the idea that disasters — like wildfires — can sometimes be beneficial and are actually an essential part of an ecosystem.

There, it will scour the landscape like a runaway garden-variety water hose, level trees as if inspired by the Tunguska event or Mount St. Helens post-1980, carve out a new drainage basin, reconfigure ecology with weather.

It's designing with nature.

Shedding all pretense of humanitarianism, then, Josef Solc will probably have to find private individuals to fund his project, for instance, a Hollywood celebrity who wants to balance out his well-publicized acts of philanthropy with something that's completely bizarre (even by the standards of Michael Jackson), something that's disgustingly but forgivably selfish like buying one humongous toy.

Anto-hurricane machine

Why buy silly motorcycles or start up yet another nightclub where you idle your time and money away when you could divert at least a part of your generous profit-sharing deal to making experimental landscapes. And by experimental landscapes we don't mean building artificial volcanoes in the middle of some pimped out Olympic-size swimming pool — though if it did actually spew out part of the Earth's core, that would be interesting.

Not that he has shown other overriding interests apart from furthering his metrosexual lifestyle but we think it would be fantastic to learn nonetheless that David Beckham has bought a sizable chunk of Public Lands in Nevada and plans to retire there as an avant-gardener. Instead of attending present and future Spice Girls reunion concerts, he's out there playing with his anti-hurricane toy, recreating storms past, designing new landscapes.

Instead of Britney Spears as the paradigm for celebrity living, there is a shift towards François Nicolas Henri Racine de Monville as a model for conspicuous consumption.

Obviously, Josef Solc need not ingratiate himself to an eccentric denizen of Los Angeles as there must be a private hedge fund manager, recently flushed with millions of dollars from rising oil prices, who is willing to patronize him, thus initiating the most fruitful patron-artist relationship of the age and engendering some of the most interesting landscape architecture ever — a collaboration not seen since the Sun King hired Le Nôtre or maybe since the popes hired Michelangelo and his contemporaries to remodel the Eternal City.

Instead of buying the latest Hermès satchel, Nicole Richie buys a weather machine.

Portable Hurricane
Cave Pharming
Cave Pharming

The world is so unkind to pharmaceutical agriculture that some pharmers have gone underground to conduct their Doctor Moreauvian experiments.

In an article published a little over two years ago in Wired, we learn that a team of scientists from Purdue University, in partnership with Controlled Pharming Ventures LLC, had designed and built a subterranean experimental field inside a 60-acre former limestone mine in southern Indiana.

They did so not to escape the loud protestations of environmentalists and the uncomfortable attention from government regulators and consumer groups but rather for safety reasons, believing that pharming in an enclosed, climate-controlled environment rather than in the “bucolic, sun-dappled landscape” above ground would lessen the chance of their transgenic crops contaminating the regular food supply chain.

But apart from wanting to insure themselves against expensive civil litigation and perhaps even from criminal prosecution, the team of entrepreneurs also wanted to develop more efficient techniques and, with encouraging results, jump start a beleaguered industry suffering from bad publicity and government restrictions. Fortunately for them, the initial year-long trial was indeed very promising. Their experiment showed that their growth chamber generated an average yield of genetically modified corn (267 bushels per acre) higher than that of normal field corn in the U.S. (142 bushels per acre).

In other words, you can indeed grow cash crops in sub-optimal conditions in an underground mine — solid empirical data to excite optimism among pharmaceutical companies. (And Russian doomsday cults.)

Cave Pharming

If cave pharming does indeed catch on in the pharmaceutical industry, how would that actually be manifested in the landscape?

One could easily imagine, among many scenarios, Monsanto and Johnson & Johnson combining their expertise and their billions of cash to excavate a complex of scalable void farms, some of which are dug so deep that hydrothermal energy can be harvested to power the entire tunnel network, beneath obsolete farms that have been returned back to their pre-agricultural state or converted into either the new Yellowstone to mask the aberrant activities occurring below or a Pleistocene Park as surface evidence of a subterranean biotech utopia.

Going into a somewhat different trajectory, specifically to continue a line of speculation from a previous post on an African bridge house: can someone be fundamentally altered — like the corn they're cultivating to produce cancer cures — while living quasi-permanently in flourescent-lit dampness and hermetic seclusion, detached from the vagaries of weather, time and natural pollination, amidst pure geology?

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