Why becoming secondary players on Earth’s field will help feed all of us
Opinion Editorial by Anna Moreno – Ms. Moreno is the former Global Urbanism Director of the CHPP, Spain – 7th May 2068.
On the 10th anniversary of the official cancellation of the China Hand Pollination Project (CHPP), The Herald published an extensive article speculating on the long-term effects of its demise, focusing primarily on the social and political factors which threw us into a new world order with no damage control. Said article reflected what increasingly occurs in mainstream media outlets, which points at economic instability and increasing social unrest in vertical pollinating colonies as the main reasons for the CHPP’s decline. As former urban planner for the CHPP, I am hoping this op-ed will help bring a broader scientific perspective on the events that led us to what we now call the Two Oceans Theory.
The main motivation for me to write these words is actually to redeem myself of my past naivety. My own scientific megalomania led me to believe the beehive could be replicated on a planetary scale. Back then, it seemed everything could be engineered. If there is one thing I have learned by living and working in insular exile for a decade, is that we need to forgo our anthropocentric view on urban (and planetary) planning, and it is imperative that we do so side by side with our most significant collaborator: the honeybee, starting by recalling a phenomenon well known to all of us: the suicide of the bees.
China had already been implementing hand pollination in the orchards of Hanyuan since the 80s of the past century, long before the very first articles on the Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) surfaced in scientific journals around the world. Human labour was cheaper than eco-forestry and mono-cropping seemed too extended, too overly present, to care about the well-being of beehives. First, the CCD spread in the valley and throughout the province of Sichuan, where the disappearance rate of bees became catastrophic during the First Collapse Phase. Still, due to the excessive mono-cropping and the success of the CHPP, those were not alarming signs, at least from an economic perspective. Naturally, nobody else looked for solutions other than the usual environmental activists and those states victim of the exploitation of their natural lands, like in Brazil, where they had seen their Amazon rainforest decimated to a hundredth of its size by the end of 2019. Ignored by the big shots, the damage was done.
Ironically, it was precisely the bees who made climate change undeniable, even to the most renegade conservatives, while simultaneously bringing it to a dramatic halt by sacrificing themselves en masse and enabling a domino effect: first in China, then in California and Canada, and later on entire bee populations disappeared more or less everywhere. Some of you might remember the constant dread and the almost comical fluctuation of the economy when solar panel technology and turbine prices skyrocketed to heights only gold or petrol had once reached.
The biggest emergency, though, was food, and subsequently, agriculture. Between 2029 and 2048, during the Gold Pollen Rush, the China Hand Pollination Project tapped in with stunning opportunism, presenting itself as the only efficient and feasible short-term solution to most of the states worldwide. It was an emergency response and a highly profitable one. Soon enough, a corporate conglomerate put together a huge team of scientists, economists, lawmakers and engineers that people nicknamed The Chap. And then I became director of their Urbanism Division.
During my formative years I was part of a specialised think-tank at the University of Barcelona which, given the urgency of addressing the expanding draught, the exponential growth of the population and the scarcity of space for mono-cropping – the devastating measure adopted by the states back then to end famine caused by failing pollination technologies -, came up with a redefined idea of the brutalist high-rise. Vertical city planning proved to be an effective tool to concentrate large groups of population in a few blocks, while freeing most of the land for agriculture. Those were exciting times for me, as after writing an award-winning PhD on the reactualisation of 1970s modular dwellings in times of extreme environmental conditions, I was appointed director of the Urbanism Division of The Chap, where I was to lead a team to design the redistribution of urban spaces into “vertical colonies”.
The rationalist housing blocks that proliferated in European and American cities in the decades after the Second World War had been broadly criticised as failed – often naively Marxist – sociological experiments. Conversely, our redefinition of the high-rise introduced massive conglomerates that would concentrate living cubicles, leisure, commerce, healthcare and education into one single colony, thus liberating millions of hectares for crop cultivation. Our headquarters being located in Barcelona, we adapted the utopian architectural experiments that Ricardo Bofill’s Taller de Arquitectura undertook some 100 years ago, such as Walden7, the 1975 “vertical city” that is still standing today among the ruins of Barcelona’s industrial belt, as a derelict witness of a time when architectural utopias were linked to progress and not to emergency measures.
Our departure point was the repetition of identical cells (or modules) positioned according to mathematical formulas, a technique developed in the 1970s by El Taller de Arquitectura. We adopted the cube as the main modular unit to be repeated through a pattern of growth. This repetition provokes a certain automated urbanism, for when grouped, the cubes define the city and its functions, similarly to the rows of hexagons inside beehives. Essentially, the way to do it is to fix an axis around the isometric movement of a parallelepiped in space along a three-dimensional orthogonal grid. As it were, a cube can be shifted along this axis, but also rotated, reflected, or moved in various combinations of those processes. In the Great Urban Renewal during The Chap’s takeover of the early years, we extensively used this formula to erect mega-structural urban tissues that could stand alone or fit in with the extant urban environment, allowing these structures to be repeated ad infinitum. The advantages were significant: it made construction easier and cheaper through the use of standardised prefabricated materials while large-scale urban design became more adaptable by repeating component parts. In terms of social design, similarly to the workers’ housing developments built during the Industrial Revolution, the vertical colonies provided a highly effective access for the millions of new Pollination Agents to the neighbouring fields.
That became a key factor, for it soon brought to light that it was simply unattainable for farmers to implement hand pollination on any large scale basis. It had been feasible for those few crops that commanded high prices, and – even then – only when labour costs were cheap (which they were not). The technique required someone to take hold of every single flower. Using homemade pollination sticks made from chicken feathers and cigarette filters dipped into plastic bottles filled with pollen, a single agent could pollinate only 5 to 10 trees in a day. And to make things worse, children were often illegally employed, as they were the only ones capable of climbing the trees to reach the highest and most fragile branches.
Within a decade, the rapid decay of working conditions and the subsequent multitudinous protests left a struggling elite who tried to salvage everything from spiralling into chaos. And chaos ensued. The Chap’s Resources Division then steered its efforts towards robotics. In hindsight, that move was uttermost naive, some would even say agonistic. Almost immediately, the corporation entrusted all investments to a company named RoboBee and other materially engineered artificial pollinators, leaving hundreds of thousands of Pollination Agents unemployed (only some were repositioned into training programmes for RoboBee’s human remote control). That gambit turned out technically and economically unviable, as it posed even more substantial ecological and moral risks than hand pollination. In some areas, deserting the high-rise quarters and settling in autonomous municipalities became a common practice. Media reported images of what seemed like swarms of humans settling in seemingly anarchic communities while proposals to pave the way for the comeback of bees started to resonate soundly.
Purposeless and attacked from all fronts, The Chap dissolved into different phantom societies and some of its political leaders faced imprisonment. I was lucky enough to be considered alienated from the hierarchical power structure that commanded the corporation and declared a mere designer (cit.) by the criminal investigation. I then chose to exile myself in a new development in the Canary Islands (Spain), where a native type of palm tree, the Phoenix Canariensis, was giving exceptional results as a host for swarming bees. My island retreat in La Gomera, my home for the past 10 years, has given me enough perspective to summon in this letter the facts I believe have forged us into the fragile society we have become today.
It is imperative that we use the knowledge gathered during The Chap’s era not only as a reminder but as a revulsive. With this chronology I might hopefully draft a blueprint to understand what is becoming the most abrupt ideological rupture since the Cold War of the 20th century. Experts have dubbed it the Two Oceans Theory, a name that is gaining traction in social media and spreading in the academic world, similarly to what happened with the term Anthropocene. North, Central and South America are veering towards what is widely known as Queen B, an economy led by Bitcoin blockchain technology and the sequestration of the remaining satellites; meanwhile, Europe and Asia have turned to a system reliant on the perishability of honey to promote commerce and trade culture within and among colonies, enhanced by AI and automation, called The Hexagon Honey Trading System.
During The Chap’s terminal years, the United States pumped resources into their satellite network. With stunning opportunism and using all their diplomatic force, they sequestered the remaining satellites in orbit. The economic uncertainty that followed the collapse had some of the wealthiest US citizens investing their traditional fiat money in the Bitcoin blockchain system via the network, and gradually the rest of America wound up doing the same thing. With a US-backed control of the network, a new hierarchy of access is being established. Bitcoin lenders perform like banks used to and re-write the law, taking centralised control over entire cities. Some activists have accused beekeepers of enforcing a monopoly over certain urban colonies. Beekeepers have become some of the most powerful citizens, getting extremely rich by having different colonies competing over their services and being able to mine more coin than anybody else. As a consequence, illegal Queen Bee hunting is an increasing practice and some beehives have turned into surveillance fortresses, as absurd as the idea of controlling swarming bees might sound. Yet, there is a great divide between colonies in the countryside (closer to the big agricultural exploitations) and the city-colonies (those that concentrate a higher number of interconnected high-rise developments). The rural colonies often issue their own currency derived from Bitcoin under their control and the amount of thriving bee colonies that they possess. Those local currencies are stable and not susceptible to speculation. On the contrary, city-colonies have adopted a form of fractional-reserve banking by issuing new money in relation to their assets, which results in aggressive fluctuation.
On the other side of the ocean, ecologic cycles determine economy and its flows, which are affected by the exchange systems found in nature. Europe, Asia and Africa have now a trade-based economy with honey as the leading currency, which comes encapsulated in wax containers with hexagonal shapes, hence the nickname. Honey is a perishable good, a characteristic that defines the economy under which it serves, and so it promotes constant exchange while disavowing hoarding or speculation. Societies under that economic system have reorganised themselves into a non-centralised government scheme where citizens value the well-being of a hive over increasing the production of honey and thus unnecessarily stressing the bees. Citizens dedicate the biggest chunk of their youth to profusely study anything related to bees and beekeeping, and the laws of the beehive have now been adapted to be the laws of the economy. As symbiotic as it may sound, this system is doomed to instability. Still struggling to balance production with maintenance, the fragile ecology of this economy can only thrive without external threats, and the ever-increasing population on the Queen B sector is making their city-model the predominant one, which puts this municipalist-driven system at risk.
What not everybody knows is that it was traditional beekeeping and slight differences in bee species that provoked the subsequent division of the world in the aforementioned systems. Only the Apis mellifera, the western honey bee, is thought to have originated in Europe, Asia and Africa. These bees were one of the first domesticated insects, and are still the primary species kept by beekeepers. The honey bee is a non-native import in North America and most other countries, all honey bees in America are feral European bees brought over by colonists. My thesis now is that this factor has had a determining influence in our more or less symbiotic relationship with this species.
I will soon be moving to eastern Australia, where the Phoenixis Canariensis can also thrive, to advise on the new experimental vertical farms that are reconverting some of the abandoned high-rise dwellings into part hydroponic facilities, part beekeeping mega-structures. I am designing a pipeline system similar to a gigantic hamster maze that will allow bumblebees to travel from the mega-hives to the farms and help us pollinate. Australia and some parts of Antarctica are considered neutral territories. Their isolation from the continent makes them ideal test grounds.
Allowing bees to recover to healthy hive numbers while still being able to feed the increasing population asks for dramatic measures. Moving the weight of agriculture somewhere else and transforming our derelict vertical cities into vertical farms is our only hope. I see it clearly now. We should have looked, listened, and learned how to swarm like a single organism. Looking back, I see my life experience as a metaphor of the recent history of humankind. I find myself now inhabiting a decaying body, and at the last quarter of my existence I am back to studying again. I am humbled by my past failures as a urban planner, for bees are the ultimate urbanists. It is fundamental that we learn how to bow our heads as a species, because right now we might just need to act as a secondary one. We must allow bees to thrive and meander, we must quietly observe and follow their paths as they write plausible new narratives for the future.