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It’s Not Rocket Science #10: Integrated Sanitation and Nutrition

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1969: Apollo 11 photographs such as this one were a new way of looking at Earth and making its inhabitants feel special, if a little isolated.

earth-in space

They also heightened awareness of our planet being a self-contained bubble and in the early 1970s, something called “environmental pollution” was identified as a bit of a problem. See here for a brief history of polluting the planet. We’ve come a long way.

Syncrude Aurora Oil Sands Mine, north of Fort McMurray, Canada.

1971: The movie Silent Running was set

“in a future where all flora is extinct on Earth. An astronaut is given orders to destroy the last of Earth’s botany, kept in a greenhouse aboard a spacecraft.

Woooo man, that’s heavy!


But it’s good people began to think about the long-term consequences of this thing called pollution. Silent Running is “a sci-fi classic”. It’s also dire. It’s future scenario is nowhere near as dismal as the movie itself. Everything about it is bad: the premise, the casting, the acting, the plot, the costumes, Bruce Dern’s facial hair, Bruce Dern’s hair, the mysterious ubiquity of gravity and, well, hell, it’s technical consultation in general.


The lead spaceship is the Valley Forge, it’s very name a metaphoric minefield. Imagine arch-metabolist Kiyonori Kikutake’s Expo ’70 Expo Tower recumbent.


Recycling was in the air already it seems – and just as well.


1973: With the First Oil Crisis, the mood was gloomier but more real. Professor Frank Bowerman was technical consultant for the movie Soylent Green.


With the world ravaged by the greenhouse effect and overpopulation, an NYPD detective investigates the murder of a CEO with ties to the world’s main food supply.


Professor Frank R. Bowerman was

“former director of environmental engineering programs, at the University of Southern California, and former president of the American Academy of Environmental Engineers and the American Academy for Environmental Protection.”

They named the mother of all landfills after him, but that’s another story.


We don’t know the content of Professor Bowman’s technical consultations but, given the theme of the movie, they’d have had something to do with an integrated waste and food cycle. [SPOLIER ALERT!]


These next people do it better, with fewer ethical problems but a lot less drama. It’s one of those occasional things that give one hope.

What’s not so encouraging is that it was 1988. The kids in this movie are maybe in their mid-30s now. I hope they made it. I haven’t heard much about the non-technology lately.


I think the reason why is that although we might say we’re concerned about food miles, shitting into a bioreactor is just too close for comfort. We say “Waste is a Valuable Resource” but we really don’t understand what it means to walk the walk. No matter how artificially it’s produced, we prefer the feelgood factor of a bit of homegrown and are going to endless lengths to keep the dream alive.


We’re simply too emotionally attached to eating plants to have time for scum like algae.

“Since 1974, the United Nations has strongly supported Spirulina “as the best food for the future”,[44] and established the Intergovernmental Institution for the use of Micro-algae Spirulina Against Malnutrition in 2003.”

Ever heard of it? I hadn’t either.

“In the late 1980s and early 90s, both NASA (CELSS)[46] and the European Space Agency (MELISSA)[47] proposed Spirulina as one of the primary foods to be cultivated during long-term space missions.”

What happened? They found out how to make coffee in space, and how to heat up pasta. Here’s a brief history of food in space. One of the first off-planet misdemeanours we know about was when the crew of Gemini III snuck a corned beef sandwich on their spaceflight. 

2014: “Interstellar”. 


“A group of explorers make use of a newly discovered wormhole to surpass the limitations on human space travel and conquer the vast distances involved in an interstellar voyage.”

Now why would they want to do this? Yep, Earth’s screwed. Again. It’s food is running out. The wheat is blighted, the okra’s out. Every able body is needed to help grow corn. tells us that

“part of the space exploration that takes place in Interstellar happens because we are in need of new soil to grow crops.” 


But CORN! They’re growing corn FFS! Old habits die hard. If they die at all. Here’s the nutritional data for maize – “corn” if you like.


Here’s a corn yield calculator. Do the mathematics and it’ll be clear it’s not going to work.

Those first photographs of Earth from space made people think of our planet as “Spaceship Earth”. It was a good thing. But if spaceship food is nutritionally adequate but in culturally comforting shapes, colours and textures, then the future of nutrition on earth (as well as architecture, FWIW) doesn’t look that promising either. If ever somewhere (other than Earth, that is) needed an integrated sanitation and nutrition system it’s the International Space Station. Instead, everything gets frozen and compressed and brought back here.


Even if we accept that we’re only going to pay attention to high and expensive technology instead of the simple and inexpensive things that not only work but do some human good, the International Space Station is not setting a very good example for Spaceship Earth.