I’m sitting in a restaurant late in the evening after giving a talk at the San Simon University of Cochabamba, Bolivia, student body 80,000. I’m amazed that what I’ve been seeing here and, just a few days earlier in Colombia, fits so well with what I was thinking about writing about for this issues of our newsletter, that is, good news: the progress toward ecocities in the last few years. Yes I know we are still – and rather massively – loosing ground to cars and asphalt in the developing world and the move toward seriously curbing greenhouse gasses in the United States and China is glacial. But some serious idea seeds and vigorous sprouts abound. I’m heartened by the overflow crowd for my talk an hour ago here at the University, and back in Bogota just three days earlier, the day I spoke there was “Car Free Day.” Thousands of mostly young people gathered in the main square in front of the Mayor’s office listening and dancing to reggae music; there must have been two bicycles for every three persons. I’d never seen so many bicycles and such an expression that – hey! – this is totally normal! A rare few carped it had taken longer to get about town. Of course! The city was transformed for the car driver, not the driver him or her self. Generally the citywide event sparked enormous enthusiasm for not having to deal with cars. Fresh air, blue sky, sunshine and no tension among giant hurtling steel beetles, no loud chaotic noise and acrid airs.
I’d been thinking for an “article” I’d simply submit a list of the random advances, maybe even alphabetically arranged to let others than me decide the order of importance or some sort of categorical arrangement, omitting the “t” in “the.” I also thought our editor, Kirstin Miller and others working in our office might like to brainstorm and add some of those inspiring tidbits or true grand advances. Meantime life has gotten a little more interesting so I feel constrained to write some of what I’m up to that also constitutes good news, that is, fits the theme.
I was speaking at the Meeting of the Americas Against Climate Change in Bogota hosted by the Mayor Gustavo Petro at the conference hall and facilities comprising part of the City Hall complex. These facilities are built around an interior plaza with big sculpture humming bird reigning over the enclosed gardens and pathways there. It was a real honor being invited to present in this place, first plenary talk on the second day of the conference, and the next day at the Bogota Archives, with an emphasis on ecocities in relation to waters. I could even say it was something of a dream come true in that I’d been working since the early 1980s trying to bring climate change into city planning, ultimately for promoting ecocities. I was trying to influence the political process that might actually end up in rezoning cities and towns for a full-on design revolution. The object of my affection at the time was Berkeley, California, my hope to give Berkeley the lead in confronting climate change.
In those days my climate change heroes, real Paul Revere scientists leading the charge, were Steven Schneider of Stanford and James Hansen of NASA’s Space Sciences Center. I was collecting their papers and funneling them to Berkeley Mayor Loni Hancock who was alert to the issue. She even had my ecocity zoning map on the wall next to her desk. The map was designed as a guide to help reshape cities for creek restoration, expansion of community gardens, orchards and parks and densification with diversification in the downtown, a West Berkeley Center, once called Ocean View and a South Berkeley Center, Lorin in the old days. That was around 1985.
Despite all efforts of a small non-profit – ours – few connected city layout and design to climate change. The idea didn’t spread for a long time. Strange considering cities are the largest things humans create… But now people are beginning to make that connection. Mayor Petro’s initiative, though a little unusual, is no longer unique. Music to my ears – people are at last beginning to catch on.
Falling in love with a mountain
Now, sitting in the above said restaurant in Cochabamba having a Huari, the local beer, I’m reflecting on Cochabamba and La Paz. I flew first to La Paz and arrived at 3:00am, was received gracefully by Reynaldo Cuadros of an NGO called Biosphera Dharma (the personal path in harmony with the biosphere) and was then driven through the dark narrow city streets to my hotel. The next day, with view to the surrounding country mostly obscured by buildings and a few clouds in the dark blue we went to the tallest building in that part of the city to visit a restaurant with a top floor view. I walked from the elevator into the room with floor to ceiling glass windows and have to admit I suddenly, reflexively gasped, and said, “Oh my God. What a beautiful mountain.” I’ll show you one of my photographs here in this article. It’s called Illimani. Suddenly there were two cities in my very short list of cities with the most spectacular relationship to geography in the world, or at least in my experience, this one, La Paz, and Rio de Janeiro. “Amazing,” I said. “What an absolutely amazing sight. I’m thunder struck.”
Never have I had so many back-to-back talks, tours and meetings with people of influence as in La Paz and Cochabamba – city mayors, senators, representatives to the national governments, professors, environmentalists, architects, city planners, biologists and hundreds of students. I found that officials in La Paz have already a polycentric city design model for their future city that fits with our “ecotropolis” and ecocity mapping concepts in the ecocity movement, and taking a ride almost the whole length of La Paz through the air in the Teleferico gondolas reinforced my sense that they are connecting together public transport with such a polycentric (ecotropolis) model for the city.
In Cochabamba Renaldo and I met with Mayor Humberto Sanchez of a district of the larger Cochabamba city, a smaller city called Secaba, which is already dedicated to building a model of ecocity development on 72 hectares on the edge of town, a project that aspires to be a full-on model of ecocity design. Also meeting with us was a crew of several others already on a design team to pursue that objective and the State Senators to the National Parliament Ciro Zabala and Carola Arraya. Says Ciro Zabala, the State Government has already allocated $100 million US for a project that could be at the center of the new ecotown, money for a knowledge city core for healthy science and technology and a financial engine for the ecocity project. The signs look awfully good. Such a project could become the ecocity university town, a school in a thorough-going ecocity design that I have long thought so needed.
Glaciers in retreat
In addition to the speaking, planning and politicing, I climbed to my first encounter with a glacier at about 16,000 feet on a mountain called Huayna Portosi and heard from my new friends that this and all the other glaciers of their country have been melting rapidly over the last two or three decades. The only ski lift in the country was on the adjacent slope to our hiking route. Now no snow. It’s closed. Looking out at that beautiful massive mountain Illimani, my first introduction to the Bolivian volcanoes resplendent in radiant white it was love at first sight. But hearing at the same time that the white was rapidly shrinking up and away, ever higher and smaller, it was a most difficult and heart breaking experience. “Were those glaciers I see over there descending their valley much farther in the past, the snowline much lower?” “Yes.” Enough said.
So now the race is on, between the absurd and the profound, one side the throw back to the days of mobility for it’s own sake and cheap thrills with no thought to the future, the car city, overmobility and reflexive desire for quick gratification in speed. On the other hand, most of what we stand for in calling for access by proximity: the shortest distance between points is designing them close together: that is, ecocity design, could make a profound positive difference, a rescue of the luminous mountain snows.
Oddly, the idea of the scattered city of people trying to get away from the city to the suburbs was actually the first wave of ecocity efforts, just severely mislead. I call it the “ecocity impulse,” the impulse to have the city and the country at the same time. The problem was the means of delivery: the car, gasoline, asphalt and concrete. Then there is the contradiction: that sprawl development covered over nature and drove it yet farther from the city rather than creating a natural way of living in the supposed (but now extripated) country. To those growing up in a world of suburbs (and gasoline addiction, paving paradise, air pollution, climate change, species displacement and extinction and grinding accidents costing over one million human lives a year and many more innocent bystander fatalities… Why not smaller footprint cities and just bicycling or walking out through close-in city limits and into real nature?
We know the mass of society is still on Plan A, the business as usual plan put forward by economists and those trying to maximize return on investment, the plan that sees infinite growth on a finite planet as ultimate measure of health and those who like Lester Brown have called for the Plan B in his books by that name that realize and take very seriously that we have to profoundly change our approaches. In that change, change toward ecocities can help lead us to understanding and building for limits to growth and design for the optimum built human environment and ultimately a future of opportunity and health for all, including the natural animals and plants.
Maybe Bolivia will be a breakthrough. I proposed four specific steps that might just do that, and there was considerable interest expressed in working vigorously toward actualizing such steps. I call the idea the World Ecocity Leadership Package.
- Implementation in one or several cities the “polycentric” centers of development I learned were already writing into La Paz long term city plan, a mapping that looks approximately identical to our ecocity zoning maps in Ecocity Builders.
- Publishing of my books in Spanish for the Spanish-speaking world in Bolivia within the next year. Sounds self-serving but I can’t help but note how much having books in print have helped spread the word and influence practice in China.
- Establish an Ecocity University or College in a full-on ecocity designed community in Bolivia.
- Make a powerful bid from a Bolivian city for hosting an International Ecocity conference, thus in three or for years, after much progress here, providing a world focus on ecocities in the land of celebrating – officially even – Mother Earth.
Now here below is my list to read and meditate on, alphabetically ordered as any attempt to order according to importance or where to put helpful effort first is just too complicated to break down. You, dear readers, might have some such positive changes you’d like to site. Send them in to me and I’ll add them to my list.
So, as a start, the changes in the right direction cited above are the beginning of my continued list below.
- Abu Dhabi having started Masdar City and possibly we can encourage them to go for big solution rather than (apparently) getting stymied
- Al Gore and Lester Brown having introduced the idea of a whole systems “plan” we could consider as ready and waiting and not looking like we are alone or presumptuous to think about it
- Bigger Bay Ecotropolis idea shaping up to unite elevated compact pedestrian development with San Francisco Bay Area needs
- Boredom in the suburbs
- Building design with more rooftop and green wall features, bridges linking structures of pedestrian permeability
- Car miles driven down in the US generally since 2005
- Cars with complex components, not parts, so no young men build hot rods anymore
- China and Korea using the term ecocity and eco-city commonly with partial understanding – a big start
- City form: more people see density as a solution in developed world
- Climate Change emergency getting clearer, with city structure at the base of solution so that most people will eventually discover the power of ecocity solutions…
- Same for biodiversity collapse
- Same for resources degeneration, energy addiction and squandering
- Same for air and much water pollution
- Same for paving land, covering farmland and natural habitat with paving
- Same for wasted human time, money, and lives lost in automobile crashes in the car/sprawl infrastructure
- Decision by David Eifler, University of California at Berkeley Architecture
- Department Librarian to feature Richard Register’s work as exhibition there on anniversary of his book “Ecocity Berkeley” starting fall 2016
- De-damming projects around the United States growing in number every year
- “Ecocity” the term being used commonly and by government in China
- “Ecotropolis” the term beginning to spread
- Ecovillage membership in the Global Ecovillage Network passes 200 ecovillages
- Energy conservation, renewables, solar and wind coming on strong
- Eric Sanderson’s work in mapping, frank anti-car book: Tierra Nova
- Ever improving theory
- Friend of Richard Register, Joe Alcamo, now Chief Scientist for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change
- Gentrification in centers (indicating popularity – and calling up the need for social/ecological as solutions seen together)
- Good allies accruing through our conferences that we might be able to mobilize in some ways
- Good start with ecocity standards and likely maturing and tuning to a major
- advance in strategy regarding standards if we can take the lead
- Idea of Natural Carbon Sequestration and the idea of a strategy to pursue this set of solutions
- Interest in my next two books in China, maybe elsewhere
- International Ecocity Conferences go on, with more bids for hosting very year
- Internet making possible working as part of the world economy and also having small and medium sized communities to live in, adding enormous variety to life style choices
- Jennie Moore’s deep contacts in “the (aspiring) greenest city in the world,” and base in The British Columbia Institute of Technology for ecocity projects
- Kirstin Millers’s many contacts with UN and European agencies and big NGOs
- Knowledge like Bill Rees’ (of the “ecological footprint”) insisting on holistic ecology informed perspective
- Korea: the Cheonggyechon creek restoration
- Korea: Sky Garden High Line take off repurposing a failure freeway as elevated bike and pedestrian route
- More streetcar systems, other transit coming on stronger all the time
- More bicycle paths, growing bicycle sub culture, Chinese separated bicycle paths People in the suburbs wanting to get to the vitality centers
- More creek and shoreline restoration all over US, other countries
- New York City’s High Line, a repurposed elevated rail line into bicycle and foot path
- People exhibiting signs of not loving cars, anymore, like white to black through gray being about 95% of car colors signifying less fun, more of the dependence drudge factor
- People making up for lack of enthusiasm for cars by buying brutish ones (admittedly that sounds contradictory, and styles pass, but this bigger car recent development is among the stupidest and people will catch some day soon)
- Pope Francis’ new Encyclical and his work in general (other than promoting overpopulation)
- Power to challenge cities to more fundamental changes when they get host responsibilities for International Ecocity Conferences increasing
- Radical drilling in hostile environments, deep seas, tar sands etc. beginning to be understood as representing desperation for the last of the resource, not progress
- Renewable energy projects coming on fast, Germany passes 50% mark
- San Francisco Bay saved! The Bay Trail is now over half finished: bicycle and foot traffic only
- Sidewalk cafes and parklets taking off
- Simon Joss and his direct approach and analysis of standards as a stream of good thinking to be activated
- Six Big Ones simplification based on proportionalizing problems and solutions – then prioritizing, then coordinating those solution components… Maybe call it Plan Z
- Walking trails like the Bay Trail around San Francisco Bay about ½ complete now, and Humboldt Bay Trail between Arcata and Eureka, California
- Youth not nearly as interested in cars in general
We can count some blessings!
And on and on……………………………. ………… …… …. … … .. . . . . . .
Richard Register can be reached at email@example.com
Winding up my series, Part Three, on the recent conference “Toward a New Paradigm in Human Development” held in Baku, Azerbaijan, April 30, 2015
I picked up Lost Horizon at a small bookstore just before I left Kathmandu in 1995. The James Hilton yarn is famous for many in the Western World who never read it – or even heard of it – for introducing the timeless land of Shangri-La, a warm climate paradise sheltered behind the towering stone and ice teeth of the Himalaya mountains. Noting the book’s small size and reasonable 275 pages and knowing its popular almost mythic status, I thought it was just the entertainment for my flight out of Nepal and back to the world of my everyday affairs.
It was night at the airport, no posted sign of when our plane was to leave, though my ticket said departure in 45 minutes. Lightning was rippling through the dark beyond the mountains to the south, the height of the Rockies in the US, and shimmering off the luminous wall of the Himalaya range to the north – 15,000 feet higher than the Rockies. Interment sheets of rain were swirling about. Not a good sign.
I stood in the queue about 12 from the counter when about 50 people burst through the door and crushed me into the people in front of me, popping me off to the side like a bar of wet soap grabbed at a wrong angle. Their enormous bags on overloaded carts made me immediately think, “Are these people greedy export/import merchants, stunningly self-centered tourists or maybe furniture movers? Maybe desperate immigrants?” But that didn’t make sense; they had no fear in their eyes. In fact, aloof, superior and entitled they made no eye contact all. Ignored me and everyone else. My lesson learned, I shoved back in with the same technique a few places down the line.
Still no news about our plane two hours later. Then, with a rumor started by a stewardess we all surged forward, ran through a gap in the rain over the poorly lit runway, stuffed the plane to capacity, me worried about such a load of baggage, and took off into the rumbling sky. Over the Rocky-sized mountains and on the way to Delhi the ride smoothed out and I began reading the book – which started with desperate people crowding into airplanes attempting to leave a war torn similar part of the world. Well, coincidence I thought, I’d just been there.
In Lost Horizon four escapees find themselves on a plane going in the wrong direction, kidnapped, then crash landed just over a pass from Shangri-La. In that valley the towns and lamasery of a peaceful, creative society living in harmony among themselves, enjoying nature’s sheltered bounty. My job! Designing such a place is for fiction, but something get’s built and we definitely should head in that direction.
Conference in Baku
Now, zooming ahead 20 years and I’m flying back from Baku and a conference remarkably different from the others I generally attend. The main issue: international peace and stability through political approaches to a more peaceful world as the Old Order morphs into something not yet clearly seen. It was a conference of two parts, two days called “Building Trust in the Emerging World Order” featuring 37 former heads of state and “leading scholars and experts,” mostly from the Europe, Africa and Middle East region with a few from North and South America and South Asia. The second part, on the third day, was a conference on “A New Paradigm in Human Development” hosted by the World Academy of Art and Science. The first two days were hosted by the Nizami Ganjavi International Center, a non-governmental organization named for the country’s famous poet and funded by the Government of Azerbaijan under the guidance of President Ilham Aliyev.
The conference organizers put their mission this way:
2014 was a complicated year for global stability and human security. In a year where the number of refugees and internally displaced people reached its peak since the end of the Second World War, the world witnessed the continuation of conflict and violence. The rise of radical groups in Africa and the Middle East; the internationalization of the war in Syria; a crude conflict at the gates of the European Union in Ukraine; a growing divide between Russia, the European Union and the United States and its destabilizing consequences; an increase of the terrorist threat; the continued organized criminality in Latin America; and an overall escalation of global conflict and rhetoric. All these developments are bringing the current world order into question.
The objective: “…to debate the current trends in international relations and human security… to elaborate concrete steps for today’s leadership to overcome these divisions.”
With so many former heads of state there the conference represented quite a bank of political knowledge to say the least. I had a better idea how my focus on ecocities fit the third day. So for the first two I was mostly in learning, not teaching mode.
What stood out most for me were two things: First, general agreement that the Pax Americana world order with its dominant “Great State” was gradually fading and the next order only vaguely suggested.
Second, there was near unanimous fear and loathing for what the delegates saw Russia becoming under Putin, and not just his aggression in Ukraine but the disturbing fact of very high approval ratings for his policies throughout the Russian populace, reported to be around 85% in a number of newspapers, and broad hints of military acquisition of territories in other neighboring countries where a significant number of Russian-speakers live. That dominant theme of the first two days was expressed by former Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga who told me after her talk that her family departed the country just ahead of the torpedoes, not the German’s but the Russian’s trying to stop people from escaping their new sphere of influence as the Second World Wars was ending. Her parents were naïve idealists she told me and left late because they were convinced the League of Nations would broker a just peace. Didn’t happen. Now, she said, Russia wants to regain its status as a great power, similar to the way Western Europeans decided to unite in a larger European Union.
But the situation is radically different, she said before the assembled audience, in that the European states joined voluntarily and the Russian Empire called the Soviet Union was assembled by military conquest against the will of the citizens of the subjugated countries. She was being not just a little ironic when she said the theme of the conference – building trust – required actions to justify trust. The Russians are killing people, hundreds of them every week, she emphasized.
At first I didn’t have much to say about what ecocities might contribute to solving such highly charged problems of outright violence between leaders and peoples. A few points in discussion were interesting, such as the broadly shared prediction that in the next world order China and to a lesser degree India, would play large roles while the U.S., becoming more energy independent due to fracking for oil and gas and rapidly increasing coal mining, would retreat significantly from the world stage because it would be losing interest in the energy resources of the Middle East. Everyone thought this a very good thing since much of the instability of that region and much of Africa was precipitated by the US invasion of Iraq for the non-existent “weapons of mass destruction.” A person in the audience made the comment that the US “made some mistakes in Iraq.” The director of the Alexandria Library in Egypt, Ismail Serageldin, immediately retorted that there was no mistake about it. It was carefully planned and executed.
Another random item and one of the few concrete proposals: why not a Mediterranean regional development bank? To finance the building of what, however, was left up in the air. I’ll return to that idea shortly.
On the third day I was assigned to a panel and given seven minutes like everyone else to make a statement. “Everyone else” included Ms. Vike-Freiberga and former President of Bolivia Jorge Quiroga as well as our host that day, Garry Jacobs, President of the World Academy of Art and Science. Quiroga and I chatted for about half an hour at the Baku Airport, by the way, while waiting at the VIP room for our boarding passes to leave the country. He told me he loves climbing in the Andes. Fifteen years ago, he observed, he used to put on his crampons – those attachable spiky cleats climbers strap onto their boots for ice – 800 feet lower on the mountains. Global heating.
Everyone of the approximately 40 at the day three conference were presenters. No space was made explicit in topics selected to specifically address urban issues, or even ecological ones, though certainly city issues are extraordinarily consequential in terms of impacts in the development process, both negative and positive impacts… depending on particulars, the big particular implying vastly different outcomes: are you going to design and create an environment for people or cars?
The topic of my panel was multiculturalism and associated problems and solutions. With the influx to Europe of thousands of refugees a month from poverty, overpopulation and increasing consumption pressures on resources as well as immigration from the four years old civil war in Syria, religious and tribal wars in North, Central and East Africa and around the Middle East, not to speak again of in Ukraine, many Europeans were positively unnerved. Maybe insights from ecology as the study of processes in nature might be helpful, I thought.
I was noticing almost every religion and many philosophical and economic theories believe things can only be healthy and happy when “everybody believes as I do.” The world for the Shiites or Sunis today, this Protestant group or that Catholic one 400 years ago, or Pax Capitalistica or when Russia regains its vast and proud empire in the future, and so on.
Ecology, that is nature, begs to differ, and here is the dynamic: In nature things thrive in high biodiversity. Shouldn’t mutually respecting cultures? The more the merrier. Why that dynamic balance in nature? Because no organism or species takes more than it can eat at a sitting or store up for one winter. Plus, even though each organism’s strategy for surviving is to have many more offspring than manage to survive, all the other participating individuals and species are putting the breaks on each other – limits – preventing any from far exceeding “carrying capacity” of an environment. Predators, diseases, starvation due to overconsumption due to overpopulation tightens the limits on violators of the natural consumption limits.
Not so with people, who have killed off or pushed off into remote corners almost all of the predators, controlled most of the diseases and obscured and postponed while amplifying the stresses of overpopulation by employing machines and vast quantities of energy to squeeze ever more food and other commodities and products out of the natural environment as if the resource base was infinite or ever growing – which it isn’t. Maybe simple agreements or in a pinch “sanctions” from the international community could restrain way out of hand excesses? In any case, the basic mechanism, which is quite common anywhere a peaceful society goes about its business, is values held by all that could be said to restrain greed and live and let live the various differences that don’t unduly exploit others. A few billion people live that way. Ways need to be found to bring the rouges back into decent civilization, to say convincingly to them, “It’s OK, don’t worry, we can all do quite wonderfully together.” Of course that’s more easily said than done. Maybe it needs a few new ideas…
With similar reasoning I offered my panel the idea that multi-specesism not only exists but seems to rule in healthy evolution. Might this not be a major lesson modeled in nature that humanity aught to take seriously? It would be another idea to boost the tactics of the Gandhi’s among us.
I said I personally very much simply enjoy the rich mix of people and cultural patterns in the part of my home town, Oakland, California where I live – about 1/3 white, 1/3 black and 1/3 Asian. With a little mutual respect, no problem and lots of virtuous vitality for all.
The second idea I thought might help was simply that an occupation for saving the day – solving climate change, species extinction, mineral extraction to exhaustion, social discontent unto war and other problems – might just be to start focusing on building a better civilization, literally: start building ecocities. That’s not my idea, the occupation to distract from gathering tensions and hatreds and provide a very positive thing to be doing for the common benefit of everyone. It was suggested by one of the planners for the 11th International Ecocity Conference coming up this October in Abu Dhabi. At a dinner between planning sessions in Barcelona in early 2014 one of those present, Khaled Tarabieh, suggested ecocity building was just such a vehicle for very positive changes. He thought it might create a positive common project for the warring tendencies in his Middle Eastern region, something practical and “larger than any of us” to advance a new harmony.
The notion reminded me of a famous psychological experiment organized by Muzfer Sherif who is regarded as one of the founders of Social Psychology. It was called the “Robbers Cave Experiment” because it was held at a boy’s school called Robbers Cave. To test the theory that team competition settling into general ways of living and thinking might further concord or disharmony, the small school was divided into two groups of students encouraged to compete in many ways. As things progressively degenerated into outright hostility Dr. Sherif and his teachers who were part of the experiment arranged for various social events. These just exacerbated hostilities, providing opportunities for conflict. But when the hungry students had to get their food truck out of a rut and push it to repairs with lots of hard effort, the cross-team relations improved markedly. They all then had a common hard-earned success, a shared positive work experience. Plus they got to enjoy the fruits of their labor.
Though the experiment was criticized for being a tiny sample and made up of people with rather minor and only recently experienced reasons for conflict, and done among adolescents not adults, it posed the possibility that working together can create a shared sense of success benefiting all and contributing to more harmonious relations. Not that most of us haven’t experienced this in many ways anyway, but a controlled experiment adds some weight to the notion.
Could ecocities serve in this manner? Meantime they would be doing a good deal to solve the problems mentioned in any case. The Europeans are faced with influxes of refugees from war and poverty on the south and east and are more than a little perplexed by the future and, it seemed obvious struggling with what to do about it. The new regional bank I’d heard suggested, if it were to attach to the building of ecocities might well provide the kind of common labor to unite. If people came to understand dealing with the largest of humanity’s creations – our cities – as if they were large enough to be also a positive rather than negative influence on environment, and in some cases, human peace and harmony, any bank could join in providing the credit for an extremely broad range of “green jobs” required by the best of city-building enterprise.
Today’s Lost Horizon
Retuning for a moment to “Lost Horizon” and the very reason for Shangri-La as described by the High Lama of that lifeboat sliver of the larger world civilization, we may see parallels with the global scene today, and especially with the kind of worries Europe is descending into as evidenced at the conference on “trust” and a changing World Order.
The hero of “Lost Horizon” is a man named Conway, an Englishman weary of war and conflict, apparently, for starters because of the First World War in which he participated and which changed him forever turning a gifted mind and man of action movie stuff into something of a brooding philosopher. He was marooned in Shangri-La, almost a prisoner of the endless high and remote mountains, and is now conversing with the High Lama who is talking about the new war just dawning. We have to remember that the book was written barely a decade after World War I and as the Nazi’s were coming to power in Germany. It has a decidedly Euro-centric perspective and some would say is somewhat racist as well with the elite in the remote valley almost all of European descent and culture even though the tale is set in Tibet. But it’s entertaining and more interestingly, it posits a world in trouble and some efforts for dealing with it.
The High Lama is explaining what Shangri-La has to offer Conway if he doesn’t try the probably anyway fatal effort to “escape”:
Our order knows only silken bounds. To be gentle and patient, to care for the riches of the mind, to preside in wisdom and secrecy while the storm rages without – It will all be very pleasantly simple for you, and you will doubtless find great happiness.” …Conway sought to reply, but could not, till at length a vivid lightning-flash paled the shadows and stirred him to exclaim “The storm… this storm you talk of…”
“It will be such a one, my son, as the world has never seen before. There will be no safety by arms, no help from authority, no answer in science. It will rage till every flower of culture is trampled, and all human things are leveled in a vast chaos… Do you say I am mistaken?”
Conway answered: “No, I think you may be right. A similar crash came once before, and then there were the Dark Ages lasting five hundred years.”
“The parallel is not quite exact. For those Dark Ages were not really so very dark – they were full of flickering lanterns, and even if the light had gone out of Europe altogether, there were other rays, literally from China to Peru, at which it could have been rekindled. But the Dark Ages that are to come will cover the whole world in a single pall; there will be neither escape nor sanctuary save such as are too secret to be found or too humble to be noticed. And Shangri-La may hope to be both of these. The airman bearing loads of death to the great cities will not pass our way, and if by chance he should, he may not consider us worth a bomb.
Well if that isn’t an apocalyptic vision I don’t know what is. And it largely came true when the Second World War was launched only six years after the book’s publishing date – or even earlier if you consider the warm up to World War II with Japanese aggressions in East Asia, Franco’s war in Spain and Mussolini’s in Ethiopia. What it may bring to mind now is this: could the perfect storm of environmental problems and rapidly evolving social/cultural/political conflicts, that perhaps especially the Europeans see growing on their south and east, come together for some unprecedented world catastrophe of a scale not so different from the one the High Lama predicted for which Shangri-La aspired to be a refuge and spark of renewal? If the resource base of the whole planet relative to high human population and average consumption rates and the viability of its climate system and biosphere are now in question, is Hilton’s fantasy possibly a timely if also dated warning to be examined all over again?
Since we were talking about paradigms related to development I felt it was in order to explore the paradigm concept itself in our third day of conferencing. So I noted there seemed to be a set of paradigms very broadly embracing many other paradigms all at once. In addition it struck me that the particular three of them I offered, if clearly understood, might provide new perspectives on all the rest. They might help lead to crucial improvements such as radically improving our cities, dealing with extremely high human populations stressing resources, shifting from high energy massively mechanized agriculture to organic, reversing climate change and global heating and, perhaps most basically of all, confronting the generosity/greed dilemma that produces extreme exploitation and over extraction and consumption on a limited planet.
I proposed an outline of these three over-arching paradigms in my second of these three articles for our newsletter that followed this outline. In abbreviated form, here they are:
- Old Paradigm: Infinite growth
- competition and consciousness evolving, dominating
- up to and including the 20th century
- slogan: “more and more and more”
- Transition Paradigm: respect limits
- cooperation and conscienceness evolving, dominating
- approximately the 21st century
- slogan: “shrink for prosperity”
4.3. Forever Paradigm: compassionate creativity
- coevolution of conscienceness and the biosphere
- approximately the 22nd century and into the deep future
- Slogan; “always creating”
“Once we accept our limits we can go beyond them.”
~ Albert Einstein
“There is plenty for our need but not enough for out greed.”
~ Mohandas Gandhi
“…unless we exhaust our natural base of support and then there will not be enough even for only our needs. Time to be careful.”
Whether these ideas move forward in a fashion and with a speed that can contribute effectively to our human and environmental problems is far from certain. It’s debatable in addition that many other people beyond our ecocity circles will take the whole pattern as laid out in these three articles seriously. There is even the question as to whether they make sense in a more real sense. The best I can do is try.
I’ve heard the criticism that presuming to deal with such large problems is something of a flight of a presumption and one lost in fantasy at that. But I think of it as not much more than normal Earth citizenship we can all exercise to some meaningful degree. So I’m far from convinced of that criticism’s validity and believe each of us has the capacity to think about all these things and…try.
The following essay appeared as two parts in the monthly newsletter of the California educational non-profit Ecocity Builders, the first for their April, 2015 edition and the second for their May, 2015 edition with two separate titles, one for each month.
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Begin part two, May 2015, Ecocity Builders Newsletter
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For my contribution to our Ecocity Builders newsletter last month I wrote about some of my then current thinking on paradigms, mentioning that I’ve been thinking a good deal about the subject in preparation for attending and speaking at the “New Paradigm for Human Development” conference in Baku, Azerbaijan organized and hosted by the World Academy of Art and Science.
What a difference two weeks make. I’m not the flighty sort but I’ve had some significant additions and some change in thinking in a rather short time. Now, something more needs to be added: pre-human paradigms, and also, a perspective I think shows three great stages of development that could be thought of as the three great paradigms humans participate in – in the past, present and future.
Of course I believe ecocities have a place at the fulcrum of needed changes right in the middle of whatever paradigm humanity adopts in our general extended present. But ecocities are still only one of several very crucial elements in such a paradigm that could help us into an experientially rich, and as they say, “sustainable” future. More preferably I’d suggest that future be called, rather simply, “ecologically healthy,” the base condition for continued happy evolution of society and nature alike. We are alive after all; biology is our basis; therefore I prefer “ecocity” to “green city” or “sustainable city,” ecology being the study of life in its countless dynamic interconnections. In this second installment, look for “exaggerated gamesmanship” as a key concept introduced in the first installment.
Related side note: the Chinese government leaders these days declare they are dedicating themselves to creating an “ecological civilization.” I wish my own government would do that, which would be an open door to ecocity contributions. “Civilization,” the term itself, is based on the Latin for “city,” which shows you just how open such a door should be. Too bad that for the time being the Chinese are still so strong on trying to make cars a big part of that civilization – a major contradiction, but with luck, that element in their paradigm will change.
What again is a paradigm? A matrix of thinking and acting accepted by an individual or collection of people. We can have what amount to our own personal paradigms. Group paradigms can run from those of a small cluster to perhaps the whole world population. At any level a paradigm is generally “what’s going on,” how things happen based in our thinking that counts most. But also, paradigms regulate what we let into our consciousness as well, what or whom we pay attention to or stonewall, that reinforces our reality, and what is sometimes even jokingly called, when the paradigm is one held by many people, “consensus reality.”
Is a particular paradigm really real? Well we all hope so if it is ours. And rather conspicuously, some seem healthier than others – to say the least! Some lead to enlightenment (or for the purist, almost there) while others can lead to horrors of violence and destruction.
Similarly, some social/cultural “myths” encapsulate – or try to – the essence of our world. In this sense our Big Myths are stories dramatizing our Big Paradigms. For most cultures our creation myths are the foundation for pretty much everything. Some people don’t believe in them but the great majority of a “people” often do, especially where a single religion presides over a large landscape. Creation myths tell us where we come from, where we are going and what we are supposed to do in the meantime, which is saying a great deal indeed. They often lead into an after life where we are punished or rewarded for our conduct here on dear old Earth: in Heaven or Hell or in some Valhalla or Happy Hunting Grounds. Some such grand cultural myths posit returning in some form for a second chance, a third, a forth…
What is particularly powerful about creation myths is the fact that they are built around a story line that seems prototypically human, the gods or God in them are human but more so. We can see ourselves living such a myth, identifying with the characters. These myths are not just outlines of what we are supposed to embrace or avoid and manifest or destroy, they are all about me and my family, friends and associates, my competitors and antagonists. We can place ourselves in their action. These myths are living paradigms with a story line.
Evolution’s pattern and where it reverses, then advances again
What has changed in my think is this that follows, but first, why the change? I’ve been teaching a class in ecocities for the past two weeks at Maharishi University of Management in sleepy, cozy Fairfield, Iowa – except when reality rumbles through about 20 times a day in the form of a gigantic Burlington Northern unit train owned by Warren Buffett loaded with averaging around 130 hopper cars heaping full of black coal that’s being burned in about that same immense volume and time span at the various ends of the branching tracks, transferred cross country from Wyoming into the atmosphere at points eastern, then to circle the globe as CO2 and other chemicals and gasses for months, some for decades. But that is a whole other (if related) story.
I prepared a seventh presentation, a new one, in this series of lectures for my third engagement there in Iowa, one dealing with how paradigms fit our college level class on ecocities. From conversations with teachers and students, new ideas emerged.
I’ve seen cities as a powerful step in evolution not just of ourselves and our individual and social consciousness but in the physical trajectory of evolution from “Big Bang” to hydrogen scattered through vast expanses of space, to condensation and formation of stars from that hydrogen, then planets from the elements created in stars, then life from chemicals on planets, then consciousness from life among the chemicals, of the universe. In other words we embody a phase of evolution, new in the swath of billions of years (though life may exist elsewhere too). This observation I got from Teilhard de Chardin and Paolo Soleri 50 years ago and the sequence has been corroborated and embraced by cosmologists that use astronomy, math and physics as their main tools. What Teilhard and Paolo noticed about this set of changes is a pattern they called “miniaturization/complexification,” the two phenomenon inextricably intermingled and happening together through time. It is educational that “complexification” remains rejected by Spell Check to this writing, that in other words, still most people can notice, some even recite the evolution sequence without explicitly noticing the essence of the pattern itself, much less applying it to our current everyday lives.
But certainly in our everyday lives that pattern is actualized, retarded or reversed by, for one thing, the way we build cities towns and villages as flat, scattered constructions. If stars, then planets, then life, then consciousness has evolved in steps toward ever greater miniaturization/complexification, which I prefer to contract to “miniplexion,” then our cities with the advent of cars are headed in exactly the opposite direction: they became giants covering vast areas of land, displacing farm and nature and consuming massive amounts of materials and energy. They’ve degenerated to zones of sameness, the simplicity of endless repetition of form and function in the grids and “dead worms” layout of vast suburban developments sprinkled with franchise restaurants and outlets, big box stores, freeways and parking facilities and common experience of guzzling fuel in epic quantities while expending large fractions of lives stuck in mind-simplifying traffic jams.
Why this counter evolutionary pattern? Largely because cars took over in the early years of the 20th century and they are big, weigh a lot and go fast: they are about 60 times the volume of a human when standing still and take up even more space when in motion, weigh approximately 30 times as much as your average human and in normal operation move about 10 times as fast. This has created our behemoth sprawled cities whose residences, shops and offices share few walls, floors and ceilings with each other and fail to share their “waste” heat and cooling energy while scattering things such that recycling is inefficient. The whole thing is powered by great rivers of oil flowing out of the Earth and into our vehicles as gasoline and diesel and thence into the atmosphere to join Warren Buffett’s 20 times 130 hopper cars of coal a day (3,600 cars) passing through Fairfield plus CO2 and other gasses, soot and aerosols from all the other human sources which make Burlington Northern’s contribution look small.
As Soleri pointed out way back 50 years ago when I met him in 1965 the more three-dimensional city was the compact much smaller city by almost any measure other than its density, and that with a great deal of diversity in small areas – complexity as another way of looking at it – everything could be close together in the city that used the model of complex living organisms as some kind of guidance.
I call this the “anatomy analogy:” cities like complex living organisms. It pays to pay attention. The more we build with this as a clear guidance the more likely we will have ways of living efficiently enough to be harmonious with nature, considerate enough to live within an “ecological footprint” that does not degrade the rest of the living fabric – the biosphere – of our planet.
That connection when I mention it in my talks – evolution to city design and layout – has received a ho-hum response or complete disbelief as too “far out” for most people. Connecting city planning issues to bicycles, recycling, community gardening, solar passive architecture and energy conservation, public transit and even the value of “mixed use development”… All that is just fine and gaining credibility and adherents steadily. That’s some progress. But enough?
Evolution’s paradigms, followed by ours
But now, let’s look at evolution’s paradigms. What struck me thinking about paradigms, preparing for my new presentation at Maharishi University, was the notion that maybe not just people but all living things and even the inanimate universe are and have been caught up in patterns that look and act much like paradigms. The sequences of events might not have seen consciousness in the universe in the early billions of years but patterns defining actions and reactions with recorded lag times called momentum and inertia, products and patterns that remain to influence the future, would have a rough parallel with paradigms in human consciousness and society.
Maybe there have been four big paradigms: the Physics Paradigm, the first big paradigm. Then the explosion of the starts seeding the universe with the heavy elements, creating the planets, comets, asteroids and such, the Chemistry Paradigm based on the full range of the periodic table of the elements, the second big paradigm. Then the advent of life on our “small” planet, the Biology Paradigm, the third big paradigm.
So far so good – or at least I think it sounds fairly clear, aka “good.” So what to say of the paradigm of life giving rise to consciousness in the universe? The Consciousness Paradigm, the fourth big paradigm?
Sorry but here comes another made-up word: conscienceness. And I’ll suggest three successive all-encompassing, while they dominate, paradigms, that last of which, not yet commenced, might continue essentially forever, or perhaps lead into some other reality, some might conclude “spiritual” or “noospherical” (the biosphere’s collective consciousness, to be explained more later) or maybe completely unpredictable. Here’s my outline on all that:
The Conscienceness Paradigms, being something like overlapping subdivisions of the fourth paradigm in terms of the basic paradigms of the universe. In fact it would just be a more inclusive term for the Consciousness Paradigm, designed to include both consciousness and conscience:
4.1. Old Paradigm: Infinite growth
- sum total of life evolving
- competition and consciousness evolving, dominating
- “Star Wars Myth” (from my last installment, with more below)
- up to and including the 20th century
- gift economics then capital economics in human exchange; within capital economics capitalist vs. socialist economics
- slogan: “more and more and more”
4.2. Transition Paradigm: respect limits
- life evolving but changing in very important ways
- cooperation and conscienceness evolving, dominating
- we are always emerging, creative
- approximately the 21st century
- capitalist + socialist economics
- slogan: “shrink for prosperity”
4.3. Forever Paradigm: compassionate creativity
- coevolution of conscienceness and the biosphere
- creativity and compassion forever
- with conscienceness firmly established
- approximately the 22nd century and into the deep future
- dynamic capital (not capitalist) economics
- Slogan; “always creating”
“Once we accept our limits we can go beyond them.” ~Albert Einstein
We somehow missed that overall guidance in the old paradigm, not listening to Einstein, but I think the reason was that our habits of survival were dominantly from life’s long, long pattern of “survival of the fittest” and the dominance of the competitive over the cooperative, though the cooperative was always also there in the gamesmanship of staying alive to reproduce in evolution, perhaps strengthening over time and becoming quite strong in human societies when they embraced “civilization” with thousands of people involved in one paradigm or another while building enormously complex and often stunningly beautiful cultures and horrifying destructive, gory, glorious, disgusting wars.
What I’d like to suggest now is that consciousness was becoming ever more powerful and introspective and extrospective (exploring our world) as life evolved ever more complex organisms. All life forms in the Biological Paradigm do produce and always have produced far more numerous offspring than survive to reproduce, which Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace made a big deal of: nature red in tooth and claw – but also surviving by delivering services in cooperative exchanges, such as the bee delivers to the flower by fertilizing it, the flower providing nectar and pollen in return. That’s why Darwin and Wallace said not the most strong, violent and greedy to consume and control everything, but the most able to fit into the dynamically balanced ecosystems, from the local to global whole biosphere level: survival of the fittest.
We might consider conscience to begin evolving in first simple then more complex ways, say as patterns of care for young, or even maybe impulsive, one might conclude genetically “hardwired” or “instinctive” drive to deliver services while harvesting the requirements of maintaining lives, each and every organism. Naturalist Edward O. Wilson has even posited that life forms exhibits, and very conspicuously he says if we but notice, a desire for “affiliation” with other different life forms in addition to attraction to members of their own species. “Affiliation” is his attempt to sound more scientific than the soft and cuddly “affection” but that’s I’m sure what he means: real cross species desire to know and get close to… if not too dangerous, those fascinating others.
So a particular kind of consciousness began arising with the more self-feeding and self-defending kind that could, as developed most highly in humans, to be known as conscience. It’s deep origin probably has a lot to do with the “identity factors” behaviorist psychologist Konrad Lorenz noticed seemed to be part of the imprinting process going on in the various birds he was living with and experimenting with. With higher levels of consciousness, these kinds of thoughts or unconscious processes of the mind added up to some behaviors that best are categorized as ethics, morals and sense of justice, generosity and compassion. Not just self-feeding, but feeding offspring, building and sharing shelter and taking defense responsibilities alone or with mate or larger numbers of the same species. Cooperating with other species in symbiotic relationships would count too. Eric Weiner in his insightful and often hilarious world-roving quest for understanding happiness called The Geography of Bliss has this intriguing contribution to this line of reasoning: “Neuroscientists, meanwhile, believe they have located the part of the brain linked with altruism. To their surprise it turns out to be a more primitive part of the brain than initially suspected – the same part associated with our cravings for food and sex. That suggests we are hardwired for altruism and not just faking it.”
Would it be a stretch then to say at a certain point a healthy conscience was co-evolving with ever-higher consciousness, and starting fairly early on in evolution?
There are other dimensions of consciousness, such as creativity, which reflects in us what is happening in the universe as it evolves new forms and processes in its own evolution, evolution being creative, a pattern more and more physicists are calling “emergence.” Among humans, it may be that such creativity has to be careful these days not to create dangerous, damaging things, such for example as car cities rather than ecocities.
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….
Whether what we build and make is creative or destructive in ecological and evolutionary terms brings us to the Stars Wars Myth again, a story or paradigm assuming and promulgating the notion that only when we have won and everyone in the universe is like us could there ever be peace, and since that seems unlikely, the struggle to exterminate the enemy, and he us, is the eternal fate of consciousness evolving. Most religions and strong political and economic dogmas behave like and believes “only if everyone believes as I do can peace be achieved.” But what if the more highly evolved consciousness, called conscience, noticed that nature thrived in diversity, not monoculture uniformity? What if altruism accessed its deep neurological roots? In fact, back to ecological insights, could the world be reduced to one species of organism and hope to see that one grand victor alive, maybe humans living on machine-created “food” from ground up rocks? Could life then survive at all? It seems the more the merrier in ecology and evolution, certainly the richer the choices and relationships in life.
Naomi Klein, known for her impeccably researched, referenced and righteous attacks on the violent excesses of capitalism’s extreme side, The Shock Doctrine, has noticed in her new book that socialism’s record of damage to the planet, and in particular the climate system – and climate change is Klein’s emphasis in that book – is almost as bad as capitalism’s and if socialism had been more successful in promoting its economics agenda, she implies, it would have been just as damaging as capitalism, perhaps worse. That second book is called This Changes Everything. Clearly something needs to snap us out of our old mindsets and – she doesn’t quite say this but I do – get us into a new paradigm. If this the old battles of one side against the other make little sense, and though there are differences, say between a lot more taxes and regulation on one side and a lot less on the other, can we just dance a little and enjoy ourselves more? Could the revolution be more like Emma Goodman insisted: “If I can’t dance I don’t want to be part of your revolution.”
That is, can we embrace the active difference, be different, accept the back and forth competing but not get greedy and overwrought by it all? I’m back now at my “exaggerated gamesmanship” from the first of these two installments to our newsletter. I’m also suggesting something as simple in human affairs as something Klein mentions in that first book, “decent capitalism,” in which moderate taxes and regulations and spending for the common good benefit all – why bother fighting? Is decent socialism exactly the same thing as decent capitalism? Literally I mean, right in the middle between the poles favored by right and left, maybe oscillating back and forth a little but not enough to bring on destruction and death?
But as Barry Goldwater said campaigning for US President in 1963, “If you are in the middle of the road you get hit by traffic going both ways.” That’s defining out of existence cooperative negotiation and advocating the Star Wars Myth. To emphasize the exaggeration of the game of right/left economic politics, he was also famous for saying, “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.” One might reasonably ask, “Whose definition of liberty?” too. And, just how extreme do you intend to get while getting people used to the idea that extremism is OK? Humanity should only get as extreme as that we don’t over-exploit one another and nature, that we manage to live in a harmonious balance.
And I remind us again that ecology and evolution don’t do it in the way of exterminating angels. It pays to pay attention, if not for any other reason than the darkly threatening admonition that “nature bats last.” Speaking of sports, perhaps when thinking of competition getting out of hand, maybe the immense amount of time, human lives ticking away watching sports, absorbed in overly competitive business banter, talking about people who are different in some creepy or otherwise confusing likely misunderstood way, is a big waste of valuable time needed to think about, study really, and face our present crises with knowledge, honed skills, creativity and a big dollop of respect for the lessons of nature’s immense diversity of living players.
Are we the gods we’ve been waiting for?
In all this, identity, a very important mental exercise, with the powers of the universe or with God is worth thinking about. Humans have seemed to have identified their better or more powerful and dramatic selves with the powers of God or the gods. When wondering where it all came from, there was God the Creator, or maybe the Big Bang and the continuing creative forces in the universe that brought us first physics, then chemistry, then biology, then consciousness tending to conscienceness. For me in my childhood, God was an elderly stern, powerful, yet sympathetic white guy with a big beard. I could identify Him with a nice but strict grandfather. If we consider consciousness our highest attainment, no wonder many want to believe some conscious something designed the universe. That amounts to a very sophisticated sense of identity linking us and God. Or is consciousness, or even conseienceness far from the highest attainment in the universe. What’s to happen in the future? Or some have maintained that God is the laws and forces of the universe, or, simply and vaguely, everything. But if God were something like the ends of the creative processes of the emerging universe, then we ourselves might be the gods we have been waiting for, at least the gods of the moment, not the extreme humans with high powers that the Greeks imagined for their gods replete with the worst of vices as well as highest commitment to heroic principle, but with powers higher than we possess now on the evolutionary trajectory of miniplexion and who knows what else? As temporary transitional gods we have a pretty big responsibility. If not all the above speculation – and revelation some would say – about God level identify we simply care about our children’s world… we still have a very big responsibility because what we are doing is having some very large and measurable damaging effects in any case.
All this is stretching the evolutionary story, that Teilhard de Chardin and later Thomas Berry, both Catholic priests who were leading thinkers in evolutionary theory, were taking into the realm of theology. De Chardin posited and Soleri endorsed the idea that somewhere deep in the future the universe would arrive at some sort of an omega point impossible to describe even as higher consciousness, an end point in the process and we for our role as the vanguard of consciousness about now are – right now – playing a role in the eventual creation of said end point they thought might be a pretty good definition of God.
I can’t push my own thinking that far into an unpredictable future, much less theological construct, but I think serious paradigm thinking has to approach the questions religion and philosophy bring up, as well as the questions science tries to address. I can see in perhaps a more close-in to my personal experience and practical kind of way, practical for surviving better in a changing world, that the three stages of the fourth paradigm, the Conscienceness Paradigm as I’m calling it here, makes a great deal of sense. And I can also say, to project a little into the future in any case, that if we don’t “blow it,” the city will play a crucial role that Soleri saw as part of the evolving “noosphere,” or sphere of knowledge embedded in the biosphere or Biology Paradigm, imbedded in and preceded by the Chemistry Paradigm, imbedded in and preceded by the Physics Paradigm. The “noosphere” or sphere of knowledge de Chardin proposed to be something like the thoughts, the mind of the physical planetary brain made up of us and all our communication and information recording tools. Soleri added to this notion that cities are nodes of interconnection of information at a very high level of complexity and miniaturization, the real brains of which we and out tools of communication and information storage are the physical part of the noosphere. The thought process itself, I’d add, would be world embracing conscienceness embedded in well-informed coordination with ecology and evolution. And if not, maybe we’d better change things to make sure it is.
If this all gets a little dizzying, it also comes down to not as important as deciding what that brain of the noosphere or those many brains of the cities creating points of fantastically complex, sometime subtle, sometimes blow-your-circuits-out stupidity as in wars, actually decides to do. Will it be that we will all continue fighting as if we would like our religion or other belief system to be the only one left standing? Certainly that’s not modeled in any natural environment as I’ve said about five times now, not the thrust of nature thriving in biodiversity. If consciousness does have, as the Star Wars Myth seems to imply and definitely promulgates, eternal conflict unto exterminating war, then maybe conscience needs to be ascendant and if we figure that out, we can do like billions have done already and learn to live together relatively peacefully, an apple cart upended repeatedly by the few that benefit in their extreme and exaggerated games for power, wealth and glory.
Thus we have the vision of gamesmanship within reasonable limits, playing by the rules of consciensienceness, and I think a very useful way of looking at things, The Way of the Three Paradigms I’m concerned with and offering as something of an outline of a happy survival and thriving.
What then is the cultural myth of the third of our vast human centered paradigms as compared to the Star Wars Myth? That’s the Eternally Creating Myth and that can only be done through serious diversity guided by conscienceness.
Now I will introduce just one more basic, more or less cosmic construct idea before we wind up: dimensional pairs. A dimension is that which, only together with something else, makes a reality. We can think of nothing that does not have both components of time and space. Similarly there are the dimensions of matter and energy. There is the universal and the unique; nothing seems to exist that doesn’t embody both of those. There is the permanent and the ever changing – the laws of the universe and the stuff of the universe seem to describe this pair, the created and the ever being created or “emerging.” In our world of mammal biology, there are the two sexes, male and female or the species does not go on. In capital economics there are the opposite tendencies that constitute something of a dimensional pair, one emphasizing the individual and the other the group, one competition and the other cooperation, when it appears that both are needed and have very valuable contributions to make – or else extreme capitalism turns into greed based fascist dictatorship of an individual and his gang, or Communist fascism supposedly for everyone but actually for another set of power trips not so different from the exploitation of the other “wing.” (I love this quote from John Kenneth Galbraith: “Under capitalism man exploits man. Under Communism it’s just the opposite.”)
These “dimensional pairs” are probably none other than a reworking of the ancient Chinese and Korean yin yang symbol way of visualizing the various polarities of life, though I think the notion of dimensional pairs adds a certain more specific set of thoughts to enrich the old notion. One interesting angle is that matter and energy seem to be the same thing, according to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, and the vast outpouring of energy when a small amount of matter is “lost” seems to confirm that. Then the yin yang symbol of Asian yore would seem to blur some, one dimension somehow transmuting into the other. Similarly when the competition that gets exacerbated between the two emphases, capitalism vs. socialism and grows into conflict escalating to war, we see exaggerated gamesmanship embracing the Star Wars Myth and violating much, maybe all of the norms of ethics, morality and notions of “the good” for, in evolutions longer term, short term greed for wealth, power and fame, that is essentially ego gone destructively extreme.
I often think in visual terms and hence I wonder how best to represent dimensional pairs, with the crisp edges of the yin-yang symbol, or something more blurred, even to the point of opposites melding into one another if not blasting through one another as in a nuclear fission or fusion reaction, matter becoming energy, but more like capitalists and socialists become respectful dancers, even maybe like “politics makes strange bed fellows.” Make love, not war. Analogies and abstract symbols are never precise, so my offering on the subject is provisional, but it does seem to me some form of this symbol create an image that looks something like the eyes of reality staring back at us.
All this may seem like philosophical wanderings about, but the implications down here on the ground of health or sickness of living systems, even climate systems, and measurable change in the level of and in the vast currents of the World Ocean suggests we need to do some things that are crucially important. Naomi Klein is right about that and those at the World Academy of Art and Science are on track addressing what a new paradigm might be, or maybe as I’d guess, a couple new paradigms, one of a different character for transition to another, that would be the highest achievement of humankind.
But I don’t believe we can rush directly now into paradigm 4.3, the compassionately always-creating paradigm of humanity based in evolving conscienceness – step forward Saints Francis and Gandhi for a little greenpeace guidance here. I think it is pretty obvious we are not ready. We just plain couldn’t for a while, even if millions wanted to, so strong are many trends in the wrong direction. 4.2, the paradigm in which we learn to shrink back from our excesses is called for as a strategic, unique in evolution transition paradigm. It’s not a retreat but an advance of a special foundation-building kind, perhaps the most creative time of our species’ evolution and absolutely essential for healthy evolution from now on and… profoundly practical. It has to become an “every day” thing to do if we are to “improve reality.” That’s what Phil Frank’s San Francisco Chronicle cartoon character “Farley” called for and the great American environmentalist Dave Brower loved to quote back in the 1970 and 1980s. For all the many reasons treated regularly in this newsletter and in my books and presentations, in the projects of others in Ecocity Builders and for that matter among millions of people working hard to wake us all up to some dire environmental and social problems, and in the work of people adding one good feature after another to our troubled and troubling cities, we need ecocities.
But also, as I emphasize in my many friendly and well-intended rants on all the above in the last five years or so we need more than just better cities. We need to see that there is a whole set of integrally related important concerns that need a whole systems approach, just like ecology orders some very large sets of activities around various chemical and water cycles with various living creatures playing a multitude of large category roles: primary photosynthetic producer, prey, predator, decomposer, nitrogen fixer, pollinator, fertilizer and so on. Now is the time for the practical paradigm, the one that may not have to spend that much time philosophizing as I have here in this article, but instead get busy with the carpentry and plumbing of a decent set of ways of life on Earth.
Without getting into detail here, and because I’ve written about this elsewhere many times, it should still be said that we need to understand the importance of proportionalizing, then prioritizing for the few very big things that need work immediately and they are: 1. population – needs to be smaller; family planning to the rescue, 2. a much better agriculture/diet nexus that greatly de-emphasizes meat, massive energy and chemical use and machines, 3. a radically revised built environment – our subject here embracing ecocities, ecotowns and ecovillages, 4. a strategy I call “natural carbon sequestration” that utilizes the grasslands, farmlands, forests, peatlands, marshes and wetlands, mangroves, sea grasses, seaweed forests and corals to actually reverse global heating by constantly taking carbon out of the atmosphere and depositing it in the soils and sediments of the Earth. This can take very little energy and effort, though it requires a great deal of a particular kind of knowledge and ingenuity to accomplish. The idea is to utilize the stunning acreage of planet earth, fecundity of its plants under that eternal flood of solar energy.
And, we need two more, totaling six of these crucially big efforts if we are going to succeed, as Buckminster Fuller always said we could: the generosity to give back to the planet and biosphere that gave us life, investing in all the above Big Four. I’d call this simply generosity, and characterize the ecocity as the generous city, city of the future, the city that literally gives back, shrinks back to cover far less land and demand far less energy, water and a long list of materials for increased, not diminished, vitality.
Finally, there is simply, education, about the above Big Five: they need emergency emphasis richly funded, and as highest of educational priorities.
Where’s the money to invest? City and state governments say we don’t have any. That’s totally false, at least for a while, though we could wait too long and lose the opportunity, then collapse most grievously. Most of the wealth is tied up in what I call the Three Sacred Golden Cows we tremble to approach and put pressure on to deliver. They are the very rich, the military and the inordinate waste in the automobile, oil, paving and sprawl building enterprise. They – the rich, the military and the automobile/sprawl system – need to change, and can with good planning, to create the enduring, eternally creating, third phase of the Conscienceness Paradigm, 4.2, leading into 4.3.
There are no known conclusions for our universe, only changes and phases in the creative flow of evolution, surprising realities emerging. Some sort of “omega point?” Maybe. But maybe eternity overrules that and we have only an expanded present to work with. Within that time frame, understanding paradigms might prove crucially important.
Richard Register can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
The current dominant world paradigm is all about hyper mobility, scattered development almost everywhere, oil to power mobility and the production/consumption machine – and fighting over it. The new paradigm is about not doing all that but instead learning how human cultures can become healthy among us people and as part of nature. Actually, it goes much deeper than that into the ways our consciousness and consciences manage our information and our lives, all animals in varying degrees, by instinct and by learning, nature and nurture. But after the more physical lead in, we will get to the more cerebral later in this writing.
An often-overlooked location on the surface of the Earth at the source of much of the old paradigm, in those physical terms I mention, is where a new paradigm will be considered at a conference in late April where I will be speaking: Baku, Azerbaijan. Wonderful opportunity.
The “New Paradigm in Human Development Conference” is being organized by the World Academy of Art and Science, of which I am a Fellow. It will be in a place remarkable for hosting such an event for it was the first real and long running Capital of the Age of oil.
So Briefly, first Baku, then on to what “a new paradigm” has to do with it.
Baku, distant holy energy grail for the Germans in both the First and Second World Wars. They never got there, most fortunately. Says the enormously thick and defining history of oil, Daniel Yergin’s The Prize – the Quest for Oil, Money and Power, so thick, and so heavy too, I cut it into two volumes (paperback – I’d never do that to a hard cover book). Made me feel a bit guilty but I had to do it! While reading on the transit system or sitting in bed late at night my wrists would start aching. So says history, Baku was the place for oil. In the US there was plenty of oil and a rare few “gushers” such as Spindletop in East Texas that set off the first really gigantic oil rush in the country. That was in 1901.
Oil, asphalt, and gas meantime had been known to be oozing out of the ground in the Baku region on the western side of the Caspian Sea for thousands of years. In lands like that, there and south 700 miles into Persia (approximately Iran’s domain today) and in part of the area of the Persian Gulf, the Biblical flaming bush was no miracle or apparition – some did just that. In some places there were columns of fire roaring and dancing 24 hours a day and the Zoroastrian religion made the phenomenon central to beliefs and rituals. Says Yergin, “…those pillars were, more prosaically, the result of flammable gas associated with petroleum deposits, escaping from the fishers in porous limestone.” In the 13th century says Yergin, “Marco Polo reported hearing of a spring around Baku that produced oil which ‘though not good to use with food,’ was ‘good to burn’ and useful for cleaning the mange of camels.”
Around Baku, The Prize goes on, “A primitive oil industry had already begun to develop, and by 1829 there were 82 hand dug pits. But output was tiny. The development of the industry was severely restricted both by the region’s backwardness and its remoteness and by corrupt, heavy handed and incompetent Czarist administration, which ran the miniscule oil industry as a state monopoly.”
It wasn’t until a polymath American college professor named George Bissell who was fluent in English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Latin and Greek and who could read Hebrew and Sanskrit had a bright idea or two. He had spent a few years as a journalist in New Orleans and as a high school principal and Superintendent of Schools. Then, on a trip back north he noticed entrepreneurs soaking rags in oil seeps in western Pennsylvania to collect “rock oil” – petroleum – to sell as medicine, he suddenly realized the stuff not only burned but with a nice bright light and almost no smoke. As an illuminant, he figured it would have a big market. Right he was and the first phase of the oil industry in both the US and around Baku launched into its first phase with lighting its mission and a petroleum distillate called kerosene. Yergin credits Bissell with being the Father of the Oil Industry.
One of Bissell’s great insights was that digging for oil should be replaced by drilling. The much greater depths achieved by drilling and ease of extraction and collection, transport and subsequent storage compared to coal added up to a real energy revolution, massively increasing the amount of energy available per person throughout a whole society. The big breakthrough there was the well drilled by Bissell’s employee Edwin Drake. That was in 1859 on a naked recently deforested hill in Titusville, Pennsylvania. At 69 feet Drake hit oil. Soon the recently standing trees had been replaced by a forest of oil derricks.
The second big phase of the oil age, after kerosene for lighting started with the invention and broad adaptation of the internal combustion engine for cars and ships and standing machines for mechanical power. Plus, lubricants could be distilled from oil. Quickly, high mobility joined everyday life via gasoline burning cars and trucks and high volume transport via fuel oil burning ships and trains. As lighting shifted to electricity, transport shifted from wind and coal to oil.
Cities of the Age of Cars
My own personal attraction to the place – Baku, Azerbaijan – has to do with my interest in the history of the whole system called cities and the particular case of city development I have sometimes called Auto Sprawl Syndrome, or ASS, pronounced as letters not as a word, which if you commute is what you sit on, pronounced as a word not letters, an intolerably large slice of you life if you are stuck commuting from the suburbs. That’s because the car, the asphalt, the scattered pattern of development and the fuel, up to now based almost wholly on oil, is a single system, all parts integral to one another or the thing just won’t function. Imagine driving trains around without rails and you begin to see how the parts are so interdependent. As trains need tracks and stations, cars need paved roads and sprawl. Thus our suburbs were created by the car, right? Wrong. They all grew up together as an integral system, each becoming more dependent on the other – and on oil – as the system “matured.” Not a healthy system for the planet nor so convenient as enjoyed early on, but still a thriving dysfunctional system, in human analogy something like a physically strong but strictly nuts sociopath.
I was thinking about all this while I was living in Los Angeles for about eight years of my life, the “City of the Future” in the mid to late 1960s and early 1970s, the city of cars, or as a journalist from Germany I met titled one of his articles, “City of Carcentaurs”, creatures with the head, arms and torsos of a human growing out of a car body, with wheels, not legs.
Then six years ago I got invited to speak in Brasilia. I thought, “Hmmmm, this place is where architects and planners decided to design a whole new city around cars.” Instead of stop signs and signal lights at corners, such a drag for the driver and so energy inefficient to stop and start, stop and start, stop and start, why not a city where every intersection worthy of some sort of control is liberated from stopping and you just fly over or under converging traffic in the way of the clover leafs of the US freeway systems just then getting up and running? Who needs corners after all! I had to admit I liked Oskar Niemeyer’s curvaceous monumental buildings, worshipfully inspired by women’s bodies, he said. I enjoyed the wide-open spaces everywhere, expansive views over the hot Brazilian inland plain. But driving around was hell of round about, loopy, almost dizzying, stomach churning. And you can’t walk anywhere, or if you try, it takes forever.
I’d thought like most people that Detroit was the Motor City that launched the invasion of the body snatchers – our bodies – and sent them hurtling about the landscape of the City of the Future, LA, where I lived happily for a time. Actually I lived in Venice on the seacoast, freshest air and most quirky, imaginative, artsy (in the real, not commercial sense) and interesting people in the smoggy basin. But now I realized, taking long, long walks around Brasilia, that there were three of these pioneering car cities, the one that made the beasties, which I was bound and determined to visit soon (and I twice did), the Southern California one I lived in for eight years that implemented the idea of the car city in sprawl development and promoted it world wide through a neighborhood there called Hollywood, and the city where I was then walking and walking and sweating and gradually wearing down, slowing down plodding on under the Brazilian sun. I thought the culmination of my on-the-scene research about car cities was then clearly in sight.
Then when I heard of a conference I could speak at in Baku… OMG! I forgot the fuel! Yes, I needed one more car city to visit before my experiential on-the-scene ecocity research was complete.
Paradigms, “Exaggerated gamesmanship”? What’s oil got to do with it?
Oil? Not much in itself, that is regarding its stored energy content and utilization as a hydrocarbon chemical and commodity in various technologies. In a very different realm a paradigm is a structure of the human mind, a way of ordering experience and channeling both reaction in short term situations and thinking in longer terms, instinct, stimulus/response and intuition on the one hand and conscious organization of information for utilization by reasoning on the other. Information is delivered by our senses and filtered by what on some level our minds decide we are actually seeing and what we think and believe about that. Our minds, influenced by culture and experience, constructs mental “filters” and “blocks” to free-flowing information and idea creation, important in keeping our view of reality from getting cluttered with other-than-paradigm-consistent info and notions. Oil fits into all this to speed and enhance the power of something of a damaging quirk in the mainstream human paradigm – mind plus behavior – that, as I’ll explain shortly, got involved in what I call “exaggerated gamesmanship.”
But first an example. The history of science author and philosopher Thomas Kuhn wrote an influential book published in 1962 called The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. He explained the patterns of consciousness and perception and reaction to pretty much everything as a mental construct. The laws of physics shifting from Newtonian to Einstein’s relativity represents a shift from one paradigm to another. The assumptions and techniques of science based largely on a body of experience, experiment and theory in the pattern of Newtonian physics with its formulas, telescopes, microscopes and a developing body of techniques and consistent knowledge were buzzing along happily in the 19th century. Then along comes Einstein’s revolution called relativity and a flood of new information and the tools and techniques used to assess and further science changed rapidly and whole new ways of viewing, testing and theorizing were swept along in something new and different. Similarly you might call it a paradigm shift when the gradualists and incrementalists of geology, paleontology and evolutionary theory confronted information suggesting that catastrophes of very rapid, sometimes almost instant change such as planetary collisions between Earth and large comets and asteroids changed things profoundly. When radical discontinuities turned up in the geological record, a new breed of theorist was born called “Catastrophists”.
The examples above relate to changes in the picture science has of our world hopefully getting clearer and more certain with every step as to what is really going on, my favorite definition of science being simply “the quest for reliable information about our world.” More profoundly for the everyday guy and woman, a paradigm switch in a cultural context can change just about everything, as say, in a conversion from one religion to another or dropping religion altogether, together with attendant life style changes switching from church to synagogue, say, or cathedral to café, implying not just ways of thinking but follow through in the way life is lived and pretty much everything one thinks about and experiences in life.
Now to exaggerated gamesmanship. We all like games, or most of us anyway: sports, getting ahead in business, courtship and love and, unfortunately, war. There is nothing wrong with a little competition to spice up cooperation in our dynamic sociability as we relate to one another, some winners some losers by degree, some cyclically winning sometimes losing sometimes, or in the finality that comes to all of us: death. Every individual of every species strives to prevail, to keep eating with teeth or sucking the minerals out of the earth with root hairs. Those that reproduce effectively send descendants on into the future of our evolving community of life on this planet achieving collectively the Earthly immortality we all fail individually. “Survival of the fittest,” said Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace. But with the advent of humanity and our varied cultures and with the rise of identity factors in consciousness to the juncture with and over the line into conscience and all the ethics and morality that go with it, the “fittest” became less violent and had more to do with skills in playing the complex and subtle games of cultures, each trying to survive, thrive, and explore and achieve according to our own personal or collective paradigms.
There is a lot of difference between the games, though, from building wealth, to winning a mate, to self-realization in art, science, sports, politics, cosmic awareness, too goofing off and wasting time. Each individual and each collection of individuals, sometimes in very large clusters, dances to the tune of various paradigms. But some very big ones determine patterns that are world-wide. Involvement in some paradigms takes up inordinate amounts of time and one wonders if it might not be sacrificing most of our precious lives here on this planet to be staring at television in the couch potato paradigm for thousands of hours a year or lost in comparing sports’ almost identical plays and scores for the 10 thousandth time with another fan. More obviously negative are the paradigms of mind and living that people fall into that are saturated in fear and hate, and it’s no joke that there are millions of people in the vast, fast, hot currents of such paradigms in the world based on one religion, nationality, ethnic group, race or economic theory or another. The game then has gotten out of hand, exaggerated to an enormously damaging degree.
Looking more closely at capital economics – where capitalist/socialist games may be exaggerated: Capital economics (not capitalist) is the economics after money is invented and circulated – we see the games of dynamic balance between emphasis on the private good (capitalism) and the public good (socialism) and should understand that both approaches have virtues and that these games can become grossly exaggerated and end up in violence and destruction. Hence, another understanding of limits is called for, in addition to the realization that we can’t grow forever on a limited, if large, planet.
So what are the largest patterns of the paradigms running things today? Is there a problem if we are rapidly drawing down non-renewable resources, poisoning earth, air and waters, changing the climate, driving species into extinction at an ever-accelerating rate? Sounds like a loaded question, but there isn’t much of any other way than just saying it. By any measure of health, things don’t look so good in a world of this much competition between so many people going to damaging extremes on this limited planet, ignoring the stunningly large and extraordinarily bad signs, and ignoring also attention to cultivating “the better angels of our nature” as Abraham Lincoln called it, which was also chosen by Stephen Pinker as the title of his study of declining violence in human history in a process he and a few others have called the “civilizing process.”
Perhaps the paradigm of over exploitation has emerged from the natural, but among us humans the now-exaggerated gamesmanship at the core of normal survival for the individual organism of whatever genetic lineage has become, in most basic terms, our most basic problem. In our human case, our numbers and power have become gigantic, planet encompassing, and it appears, beginning to be planet suffocating. In this course of events – history – we might notice that something healthy within limits which is the evolution-long apparently innate drive for survival in the game, has broken those limits and it’s now time for a new paradigm. The growth game can’t go on forever in a limited if very large environment, which is the Earth itself.
Time for the paradigm of growth to yield to the paradigm of enough. In slightly different wording Gandhi said, there is plenty for our need, but not enough for our greed. We need to limit our natural preconscious, preconscience evolutionary trajectory and its uberparadigm, or metaparadigm or whatever the most all embracing paradigm could be thought to be, understanding not only the infinitude of what humans can create in their personal and cultural selves, but that there are limits that prevail as well and they are deathly final. By the trajectory of history, its blessings and curses, however it’s been, we have been delivered to a moment of paradigm change demanding a waking up and making a fundamental transformation.
Compassionate creativity vs. the Star Wars Myth
There is a dominant generally unrecognized myth I call the Star Wars Myth. As the movie starts to roll we see written across the dark sky of space “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”
Scrolling across the night we see what in movie land is called the “opening crawl,” script disappearing toward an invisible horizon. We read it. It is telling us of secrets stolen, revolutions and wars underway, hidden weapons and a solar system-killing “death star” – all in the first five seconds. It’s all good clean fun and adventure but its underlying assumption is that by the rules of nature, by God’s decree, by something mystic and large and beyond human comprehension, that it is the fate of consciousness in the universe to inevitably come to not just competition but fighting, and not just fighting but war, and not just war but to war of extermination. But the ultimate evil might not be in one or the other of the antagonists, but rather in the construct of the myth itself.
Does it have to be that way? Is it in fact our irresistible destiny or just another – and most unfortunate – of the creations of our species attaining consciousness before conscience and not requiring acceptance anymore than small pox or dandruff?
Trying to think through what distinguishes humans from other life forms, we can see compassion isn’t our exclusive property, as anyone who has lived with our friends the horses, dogs, even cats will note. Emotions, the drive to protect and need for simple affection abound in the “higher animals”. But in our case it is all heightened and powered up by our cultures and their inventions, now with each human commanding on average the equivalent of over 100 human bodies of raw energy in machines of various sorts, most powered by fossil fuels and, as I say ad boredom to my friends, cities are the largest creation of our species, and they are built and powered like gigantic standing machines with internal parts whirling about, running while standing in place, powered mostly by oil.
But compassion it has to be. Without it, no justice, no sense of limits, or rules of the game of civilization, no “civilizational norms” as the newspapers say cursing terrorists while accepting as normal ordinary war that kills far mores. But more is needed, that sense of destiny. It doesn’t have to be provided, as in the Star Wars Myth, by eternal violence. It can be provided by that capacity among all the definitions of God that stick most universally: creativity. God the creator – that we can partake in, assuming and cultivating our own creativity as individuals and cultures.
Back to compassion: creativity needs to be regulated (limited here too) by something and it’s compassion. There is a creativity of the clever sort that makes weapons of mass destruction and uses them effectively through deception, surprise, raw violence and mechanical skill and ignoring fine grain justice for all involved. Violence is as they say a blunt instrument. But that clever creativity that is lost in competition exaggerated into violence and war is contradictory in simply that it destroys. Similarly if not at such an extreme is the creativity of building the sprawl city with all its cars, asphalt and hunger for floods of fuel. Similarly if well within the limits of compassionate analysis, we might say, the building of ecocities, cities for people instead of cars, is not contradicted by destruction and therefore holds the possibility of a compassionate form of creativity, something to define something worthy of a human destiny. But here we see a means for each individual and for whole collective cultures to move toward ever greater fulfillment of healthy creative, not destructive, potential.
So are we most basically stuck with trying to exterminate one another – the Star Wars Myth – or do we have the choice to build a healthy future? All that can be worked out in our normal games that are not exaggerated.
Our disciplined non-violence heritage
There are tricks to our cooling off and flying to our varied happier destinations, on the wings of the angels of our better nature. Pinker pointed out in the book by that title that simple manners became something of a long term very positive fad in the 1600s and 1700s, norms that cooled immature hot heads enough to avoid the more intemperate personal passions leading to injury and death. Early on statistics – he used the numbers of killings per 100,000 population per year as a basis for cross centuries comparisons of declining violence in history – indicated far worse interpersonal violence than anywhere but in an active war zone today. A cliché trick in the same cool-down-and-think spirit: when you get mad, count to ten before you blow up. The explosion will be smaller, better targeted, more effective and civilized, and less violent in almost all cases. You may even have time to consider the other side of the argument some and maybe admit it isn’t worth the destructive results of an explosion.
It is one of the things that saddens me about the present scene that we don’t hear much, as we did during the days of the American war in Vietnam, about the disciplined non-violence movement embraced by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., not to speak Jesus Christ. All of them were recruited in the 1960s and early 1970s to try to stop the killing 10,000 miles away. At the Highlander School in the mountains of Tennessee, starting as early as in the 1930s, Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Pete Seeger and other teachers and exemplars of disciplined non-violence were trained to look straight ahead, determined, dignified, educated, and above all else, dedicated to not being violent in the face of anything, that is – indisputably courageous – each and everyone united for a righteous cause based in the rights bestowed by an advancing civilizing process and enshrined (admittedly imperfectly) in various laws in various places. Joan Baez in one of her not very many interviews pointed out that yes there were a few killed who used the strategy opposing the bigoted and violent who were beyond compassionate entreaty. But how many would have died if the revolution had been attempted through violence released according to a strategy and inevitable accompanying chaos and death to uninvolved bystanders? She guessed, and I’d expect also, many thousands. And then it might not have worked.
In other words, we see here a limiting of exaggerations of gamesmanship, and accommodation we humans with the power of conscious intellect must now artificially add to the process of the evolution of consciousness in our little corner of the universe. It is time to augment evolving consciousness with conscience and its various techniques of working within reasonable limits. We need the idea that we all, including the plants and animals, are part of the living tissue of the biosphere and… we humans had better be more careful from about now on.
At the heart of this change, in other words, we need to understand the dynamics of the games we play and that they can become disastrously exaggerated. The always “more” component of exaggerated gamesmanship, is the most all-embracing destructive paradigm in human affairs when it becomes extreme, needing replacement by the “enough” that disciplines something basically non-violent in our total ecology, our whole biosphere.
Many of the techniques of the disciplined non-violence movement have been effective in keeping our human games within reasonable bounds and consistent with what that civilizing process has developed as something of a consensus around the notions sharing the bounty of the world and the idea of justice and rights. Now we need the wisdom of generosity and duties to a healthy world. That step achieved, or at least being advanced a pace or two, we can move on to design cities that represent a response to our multiple crises, but more than that, become a means for a high expression of human creativity guided by our compassion, at the heart not of darkness but as Albert Schweitzer said, moving up river in the wilderness and beauty of an Africa sunset long, long ago, of “reverence for life.”
I consider this the first of two parts along this line of thinking. In a later newsletter I will dig deeper into our large cultural paradigms by integrating concepts into the discussion themes and ideas like these:
- We design ourselves,
- We have more resources than we give our selves credit for having: solar energy, fast biomass maximum production, slower biodiversity creation (utilizing again the chart from “Limits to Growth” and “Extracted” and my amended chart that I used in an earlier article reporting on my trip to Colombia,
- Prioritizing for the five big issues we on pain of vast destruction have to confront,
- The Three Sacred Golden Cows and their role in financing the paradigm conversion when we make such a decision and if we still have time, and,
- More on the paradigm of “more” vs. the paradigm of “enough.”
Today’s multi-dimensional crises require the social sciences to think outside their individual boxes and work toward a more inclusive, integrated and comprehensive “science of society.” So argue three authors (Garry Jacobs, Winston Nagan, and Alberto Zucconi) in a paper entitled “Unification in the Social Sciences: Search for a Science of Society” published in the October 2014 issue of Cadmus, the journal of World Academy of Art and Science. The following article illustrates the significance of this subject to Ecocity Builders. The article retains the style and format of its original form: a letter from Richard Register to author Garry Jacobs in response to reading the Cadmus paper.
Let me share with you a few themes that come up for me when reading your paper then try to make sense of your thoughts and mine at the same time. My themes you might call them to put before you here are:
1. Dimensional pairs
Perhaps a helpful new perspective I’m offering related to the “yin-yang symbol” and your unities coming together.
A notion not mine but fitting much that I’m discussing in this letter, sparked in my thinking herein by your thoughts.
3. Exaggerated gamesmanship
And the implications of becoming involved in exaggerated gamesmanship, going astray from the meaningful activities of our times that would be helpful actions in bringing about a sustainable or ecological civilization. If “dimensional pairs” is a good way of looking at things, exaggerated gamesmanship explains some solutions.
4. Total economics
Finally, I think a “Total Economics” made up of the all-embracing natural economics of physics, chemistry, ecology and biology and the later-to-evolve human economics is a helpful construct providing useful insights getting closer to the “true.” Seeing human economics also in transition from nature’s economics through “gift economics (Marcel Mauss and Karl Polanyi), which overlaps both natural and human economics, I believe also has great potential to explain things and resolve conflicts. Economics claims to be a social science, but as some have said, resembles more a religion. Nonetheless there may be a way of looking at economics in the way you look at social sciences that could help a lot. Seeing that sequence, early part linked to latter by gift economics, leading to monetized economics that could be called capital economics, and realizing the “poles” of capitalist vs. socialist economics amount to a new dimensional pair competing and cooperating in a game that can get exaggerated to destructive ends, might also help toward deciding what games make sense to engage – and make healthy, better ways of life into the future. We can endure and sustain if we play the games that fit our times and our position in evolution in time and that don’t get distorted by exaggeration.
But let me start with your start:
Title too narrowly drawn considering the paper’s ambition! I’d have called it not “Unification in the Social Sciences: Search for a Science of Society,” but rather “Unification in the Social Sciences: Search for a Science of Unification.” Of course I know a little of the context in which the paper appears, and your title is appropriate to that, but the other is just the way my mind works.
1. Dimensional pairs
Yes, so much evolutionary progress – emergence – in philosophy, science and religion is in finding the unity in diversity. But the devils and the gods, not to speak the murderers and lovers, are in the details. That rich and ever so personal stuff. One wonders where it will all end.
My guess it’s in 1+1=1.
That’s not conventional math in the strict rules of the physics, relativity, quantum mechanics (despite “fuzzy numbers” constantly turning up new patterns that seem true, read, ultimately, permutations and judging proportions) in our apparent mass/energy universe. It’s more like the ancient Chinese yin-yang opposite black and white tadpoles swirling around one another with oppositely contrasting dots in their middles.
But 1+1=1 recast in language, I just recently noticed, could be described as a phenomenon I call “dimensional pairs.” I think the thought adds clarity and comprehensiveness to the venerable symbol from long ago. It came to me, by the way, studying economics, a social science, (capitalism vs. socialism) and emergence in physics in looking at the work of Robert B. Laughlin in “A Different Universe – Physics from the Bottom Down.”
I’m also not sure the formula for everything, the general field theory in some sort of formulation, is best formulated in math as attempted/executed by Einstein and Hawking and maybe getting close. Maybe better in common language. I tend to think common language that admits the fuzzy logic of intuition emerging with life in evolutionary time might work better. Common language generalizes “fuzzily” but often correctly according to what’s most important in our human world, as well as uses crisp logic. It employs higher pattern recognition of wholes as well as recognition of smaller “scientific” “certainties” attained through controlled experiment within nearly pure artificial environments or from observing the massive quantitative relationships of objects and motions like planets, stars and galaxies so large and general, details are like microscopic echoes of distant static. Actually, life on this planet and others, if there, is that microscopic relative to measuring such mega phenomena. But exist life does, another, the biological step, in emergence beyond the emergence of chemistry in the cauldron of physics of the early universe of almost exclusively hydrogen in the gestating stars cooking up then blowing out the heavier elements. All that is why, looking at social sciences, I’d bet you tend, like me, to think common language (refined for the task) would be even more appropriate to seeking a general field theory than math, law-giver of the universe when physics, without chemistry, much less without life, was the all and everything. I’d also think all us mere mortals unstudied and bereft of the gifts of math-oriented brains would breathe a sigh of relief approaching these larger problems of truth seeking, if science be one of my favorite definitions for it, simply: “the search for reliable information about our world.”
So 1+1=1 or the yin-yang symbol may do – a little in our post physics and chemistry only universe – but “dimensional pairs” are much richer and seem to be the dance of universal dynamics in the largest – all time and space – universe, down to us relatively microscopic life forms, and within us down again another many magnitudes through and beyond the literally microscopic in our bodies and in everything else including the smaller beyond the subatomic.
A dimension is something, without another, nothing. We can’t conceive existence without dimensional pairs, that is, just one of a pair at a time, simply because nothing exists in that construct or could in the universe we seem to be part of. For example, take these dimensional pairs: Time and Space, or, Energy and Matter. Try to imagine Time taking place in a universe without the dimension of Space. Or imagine Energy disembodied of the Matter with which to express itself. Certain ways of viewing the “all and everything” of the universe turn up those grand dimensional pairs too, though in a somewhat different way I haven’t been able to articulate in a satisfactory manner yet. Take “the Universal” and the “Unique.” Applicable both together to all things or… no things.
Then there are the emergent dimensional pairs that appear in the “little universes” we see all around, the sub-sets of the universe that the old total universe spawned in evolutionary time, such as in the life of us mammals within the life of all life, within and following temporally the laws of chemistry, within and following temporally the laws of physics. For example, no male and female within our mammalian universe, in short order, no human. (Though we could possibly cook up artificial means to the end that is reproduction; but then we’d be having artificial facsimiles of male and female anyway.) I’ve already mentioned in the world of economics, capitalism and socialism, which define the “economy” as the whole system as an interplay between free markets, which work beautifully in many ways, and regulation that also works beautifully in many ways. Only together can we have a decent capital – not capitalistic – economics. (Capital economics is an elaboration of the gift economics that preceded it. It is an economics with a neutral medium of exchange – money, or capital – involved in exchanges. More in a minute.)
So what’s the beef there, between capitalism and socialism? Why price wars, lowest possible pay and angry demonstrations, attempts at monopoly and stunningly greedy executive pay, class wars, cold wars and hot, people taking sides as if one side were 100% right and virtuous and the other 100% wrong and evil?
3. Leading into exaggerated gamesmanship
That’s where I started thinking in terms of “exaggerated gamesmanship,” while studying for my new book: “World Rescue – an Economic Built on What We Build.” I explain also that human constructs, both physical and mental, are built on nature’s economics, what nature builds from minerals, water, air and sunshine and comes to us animals largely via soil and chlorophyll in plants as wood, fiber and various foods, then with us predators, also bone for tools, skins for clothes, including the belts, shoes and jackets we still wear, and so on. I try to describe the connections between nature’s and human’s economics in my writing therein. And, as the title indicates, I try to do that by emphasizing the role of actually making, building, creating things, many of them as we go about the process, new to this little corner of the universe called Earth, of a nature/human unified economics. Architect/philosopher Paolo Soleri called these created things “neomatter”. I prefer “neomatter/energy, as matter/energy is the total dimensional pair. (Maybe call the “pair” as a whole “mattergy” and as created by humans “neomattergy”? Actually, animals create neomattergy too: think beeswax hives for example.)
Now to look at a point to be examined more carefully in your paper. You have about half way through quoted Carl Jung: “Everything needs its opposite for existence.” Classic dimensional pair. But then he goes on to make an assumption I don’t accept. “The indivisible, whole being that the Individual is, is made completely when he accepts and integrates all aspects of his personality, realizing in the process that contradictions are complements.”
I believe he errs in saying the dimensions are contra-dictions, spoken against one another, more or less like enemies, one to best or get rid of the other in normal understanding of “contradiction,” or that one is simply wrong, contradicted by the other. This may be a quibble because his statement comes to the unity I think is important, but my point: the apparent opposites are not opponents and opposites in that sense but dimensions of the whole. Thinking of them as dimensions instead of fighting opposites solves lots of problems, not the least of which is tendency to drift toward hyper competition, conflict and war where economic, political, religious, racial or other diametrically “opposed” force come to engage one another. Sometimes they are in genuine opposition, sometimes instead, dimensional pairs. Where we are dealing in fact with a dimensional pair (“pair” being a crude representation of what is really going on here, but for the time being I think will have to do) it helps to realize that. Plus it seems to me to be the deeper truth of the matter to understand the distinction and realize the benefits of understanding the distinction. With dimensional pairs it is, again: each, without the other, nothing.
Then, Garry, you say about 2/3rds of the way through, “No social science can be complete or effective that partitions the objective and subjective aspects of social reality, as if they are separate realms of existence that exist and can be studied independently from one another. Valid economic and political theory and practice can never be divorced from sociology, anthropology and psychology.” I’d say this is absolutely true for the reasons above. You continue:
“The psychology of the individual can never be understood without reference to social and cultural context. In his actions as well as his understanding, FDR applied a remarkable combination of subjective powers – superb communications skills and exuberant personal charm – to stop the panic of 1933…” (I deal with him a lot in my book.)
Then more. You say, “The true relationship between subjectivity and objectivity in human affairs does not lend itself to this radical approach. All human accomplishment represents an objectification of the subjective components of reality. [Your italics.] All human creation is founded on subjective truth.”
My response would be: …founded on subjective and objective truth, as clear as we can get regarding both, both together being the whole of those two inextricable dimensions: objectivity and subjectivity. Objective and subjective is a good way of talking about some things, making meaningful distinctions, but there is the higher unity you strive to describe too. In this case, the whole is the universe that social sciences address: our human existence as beings, individually and collectively. Dig in really deeply and try to separate out what seems to be either subjective or objective and I think you’d find in the interrelationship, neither of them – subjectivity nor objectivity – ever isolated from the other. I think it’s one of those dimensional pairs that begins with consciousness of the individual, even early animal individual, if in them, we humans might label that level of awareness subconscious or something else “lower.” But it is some kind of mind function in nervous tissue in whatever species and its social context and also in relation to the ecological, chemical and physics world the individual organism finds itself in.
As implied by that last sentence, this need not be conscious in the human language and manipulative sense as revealed in the making of tools and products, or even in what could be recorded in nerve-like tissues becoming brain and nervous system since down to simplest organisms, genetics hard wires many species early in evolution not to learn and store information but far more importantly to react from genetic programming. That’s coarsely called instinct. It is a matter of survival.
I think it is best described, as far as my reading goes, in a book called “Animal Architects – Building and the Evolution of Intelligence” by James L. Gould and Carol Grant Gould. In the intense competition for survival of animals, and even plants and fungi, that have hundreds of offspring or thousands of seeds or millions of spores for every one that lives to reproduce, there is no time for the individual making mistakes. With Darwin and Wallace’s intense competition around every rock, tree trunk and moldering twig down in the leaf litter lurking in wait for the non-fittest, the individual has to be programmed to do its best with as absolutely little experimentation and few mistakes as possible, to be corrected later. Later is not assured. A plan, or at least a “readiness” in the genetics of reaction to the environment is crucial. Also you will note, maybe the early organism’s nervous tissue hasn’t evolved enough for the complex internal tasks of the remembering and learning. The authors do a magnificent job of tying all that together with a brain and nervous system evolving and growing in capacity up to highest levels… such as beavers! Actually of course they rate people more complex and creative in learning and thinking capacity. But it is truly amazing how sophisticated and in many cases how complex non-human animal brains are at remembering and even creating future oriented activities with some real grasp of potential outcomes. Beavers, for example, actually do react creatively and “plan” in an indecipherable mix of instinct and flowing thought, another and evolving dimensional pair in the universe of their selves/environment totality: instinct and learning, nature and nurture, but in early stages of evolution of life, commanded by genetics, not thinking in a brain. Such dynamics pervade nature’s economics.
4. Total economics
Stepping now into human economics, imagine very early peoples engaging in early stages of what could be thought of as human’s economics in particular. Recognized by not that many, the sociologists Marcel Mauss and Karl Polanyi have played a very important role in noticing what they call “gift economics.” They say barter as conceived by capitalist and socialist and probably before them all other economists in the medieval to mercantile to capitalist vs. socialist tradition projected into the past a system in many ways like their own system. In fact, Mauss and Polanyi claim, there is little evidence such barter ever took place in ancient tribal scale economics, of pre-monetized economics. Looking deeper and deeper into evidence of the economics of pre-monetized material and services exchanges they found not perfunctory and matched equal value trades but gift giving going back and forth of a very different character. Such exchanges were based on the social meanings in reciprocal generosity/obligations sequence punctuated by appropriately “long” time gaps and associated socializing, making personal friendships and group treaties or, in failure, breaking them off.
But I get ahead of myself. Gift economics start way before humanity appears on the scene, millions of years before in fact there were even humans. That means gift economics are a sort of transition bridge between nature’s and human’s economics linking the two. It starts in animals in symbiotic relationship between species and family care within a species. Think cleaner shrimp, spiny little delicate things darting about the gnarly teeth of enormously larger fish, cleaning their teeth of jammed pieces of food, cleaning their teeth while, like humans in the dentist’s chair, the big ancient fish waits patiently – like a patient. Think mother mammal with infant attached to modified sweat glands enlarged, specialized and called breasts by people these days. Think male human out killing some poor other mammal, while mate suckles offspring, male killing the animal to bring it home for food, tools and clothing, even proto tents for proto architecture: gift economics. Everyone is just plain giving and receiving all the time. The participants just give to one another as appropriate. (Interesting side note: does this mean the Communist maxim “from those according to their ability, to those according to their need” is a throwback to earlier essence of pre-money gift economics, or maybe a premonition of a more ecologically tuned economics of the future? Or maybe neither? Or maybe both?)
The basis of all this, again, is nature’s economics: the actual physical changes and exchanges derived from sun, earth, air and water through photosynthesis to human economics “manufacturing” scrapers, “hand axes,” arrows, baskets, pots, longhouses, pueblos… nuclear weapons, the Internet…
At a certain point when various cultures develop ever-longer getting-to-be-quite-unwieldy “artifact lists” – I’ll let you figure out that one – a neutral medium of exchange becomes necessary and money and market economics are born more or less together. Suddenly we have a new dynamics with new positive potential and new problems.
This is not capitalism. It is capital economics defined by the dynamics liberated by its grease – money’s lubricating capacity – that radically speeds everything and makes the handling of vastly increased numbers of products and services possible.
But early on, with the tendency to monopoly and the rich accumulating ever more due to the compounding of many powers that accumulate that capital makes possible, we have a class division that defines a new polarity in some people’s terminology but a new dimensional pair in my terms making up the whole that is capital economics.
One pole or dimension of capital economics, represented generally by capitalists, champions maximum profits as reward to the invention, production and management skills of owners and/or managers by featuring and promoting freedom of action, wealth accumulation in private hands of a small elite and reinvestment of part of that wealth in growth. Capitalists promote low taxes and few government services and regulations all in a context where competition is king and the result is supposed to be the common good – after all, the people buy the products and services and thus have noteworthy responsibility in the existence/maintenance of the system.
One other pole or dimension of capital economics, represented generally by socialists, champions hard work and cleverness down in the trenches of labor, features freedom to bargain toward high levels of equality of income with ownership and management shared by the many and reinvestment of part of that wealth in growth – in that rare exception, there has been considerable agreement, humans agreeing to exploit nature. Socialists promote high class-distinction reducing, benefits-sharing taxes and numerous government services and regulations all in a context where cooperation is king and the result is supposed to be the common good – after all, the people are not only those buying the products and services but also those working hard to provide them.
We are all familiar with this basic pairing and sparring.
In other words, along comes gamesmanship. We can get swept away by it. Most people love games, from card games to sports engaged in or just watched, to politics unto vast economics projects to win “Progress” or war. Games follow various rules, making it possible to rate skills and accrue glory, generally in proportion to how impressive the competition in the game is. That is, there is a tendency toward extremes to heighten the stakes and excitement level. Of course everyone in the game also cooperates by playing by the rules, and the rules change usually, if at all, only very slowly and by broad consensus over generally long periods of time, enough time for lots of games to happen, establishing broadly accepted standards. This applies to board games, gambling, sports, economics, religion – all sorts of fields of action. And the generally more high pressure and active, or high stakes and clever, the more glory to the winner.
The politician getting strident, the fundamentalist becoming terrorist, the leader agitating for war gets a disproportionate amount of attention. Life and death contests and violent action attracting human attention goes back through evolution as a priority for self-defense. We tend to focus most intently on such games and players. Votes, sales of papers, television sponsorships and growing wealth as prizes go up as the game intensifies. It is a natural tendency based on prioritization for survival going way, way back in time. Accepting the game also means the one time loser can, maybe, come back to win next time. The allure is there on all sorts of levels.
The problem is that the gamesmanship can become quite extreme as soccer matches morph into post game riots, as one nation state, ethnic group, economic dogma or religions group feels it has to knock out the opponent in the game forever or push them way, way back and goes to war. In economics, though, as in most games, by definition the game needs both sides to exist at all, and is thus a dimensional pair with vicissitudes of fate and skills swinging back and forth – if we are to survive in a healthy world, within reasonable limits. Yes, play games – it is only natural – but realize what we are all doing.
If we are aware of this dynamic, I believe, we have a much better chance of healthy coexistence of all players. We can then say, “Is anything but its more mild forms really worth it if the damage amounts to collapsing of natural systems at the basis of nature’s economics: climate change, resources depletion, extinction of species?” Shouldn’t we stop wasting our time with games like this and switch to others? In fact James Carse in a short and wonderful book called “Finite and Infinite Games” points out that there is another game, which one might think looks a lot like life itself – but I don’t have the time to get into it. But we should try it out. One hint only: Finite games have an end and winner, infinite games don’t and we might all be winners.
5. In conclusion…
Don’t all the sciences including the social sciences suggest that, if we are serious about any kind of healthy planet, games have to radically change, get mellowed out or changed, completely shifted to other fields of competition and cooperation working together in dynamic mutual action and resonance? Dancing is a good analogy, as compared to wrestling – or dueling. Games are needed like rebuilding our agricultural systems and cities for sustainability, competing and cooperating to see how we can build soils best and restore maximum biodiversity as effectively as possible. These new games, part of life evolving and infinitely alive, games that don’t come to a close with a victor and a vanquished, the infinite games, are not to produce dead opponents like the games of extreme exaggeration. They would seem to require none other as a very major step at this time in a history, even evolution, clearly seen and scientifically addressed, with the values of striving for ultimates that religions and philosophies have traditionally embodied for millennia.
So your paper has set me to reviewing and expanding some of my thinking on a couple constructs I’m developing, that I think help me better understand the role of the built environment that I’ve been dealing with as perhaps my main preoccupation for three quarters of my life. Thanks!
Image uploaded by ZhengZhou on Wikimedia Commons
by Richard Register, Founder, Ecocity Builders
This is something of a continuation of my last article, with a whole new perspective.
You may remember I wrote about a book called Extracted – How the Quest for Mineral Wealth Is Pillaging the Planet. Since then I’ve “met” The Shock Doctrine author Naomi Klein and bought her latest book from her. That one is called This Changes Everything and it’s about what climate change implies about rearranging our economics and politics—and more than that, maybe our trajectory toward ecological and political collapse on our lovely, rich and vital planet Earth. Emphasize this: collapse means essentially the death of practically everything we hold near and dear.
More on her book and related ideas later. First, just a reminder that “Extracted” was written for the Club of Rome, now 42 years after the Club sponsored the much misrepresented Limits to Growth study and subsequent highly controversial book of the same title. The authors of “Limits” suggested it would be better to face Earth’s mineral and biological limits, to do things differently, than keep going in the same manner, courting not “possible” but inevitable collapse from too much growth. Specifically, as said in the Foreword to Extracted, the original authors “recommended measures such as putting a limit on industrial growth and extraction of mineral resources. They also recommended sustainable practices in industry and agriculture, as well as measures to limit population growth.”
Well, that didn’t go over very well. As I wrote in my last article, those who thought infinite growth of everything economic on the finite Earth is the only measure of health (which are close to all university-trained and business and government employed economists) immediately bared down on anyone who would dare predict collapsing resources and systems in the 20th century. The only problem was that “Limits” said it would happen in the 21st century not the 20th. “Don’t panic quite yet, stupid. Re-read what we wrote” was the implied message to the climate deniers and fossil-fuels-till-they’re-gone pushers.
Ugo Bardi, author of “Extracted” put it simply and plainly in his Preface:
These problems [of resources collapse, climate change and mass extinction] can’t just be boiled down to the perils of “running out of something” or of modest increase in atmospheric temperatures. Instead they represent a complete transformation of the whole Earth’s ecosystem, generated by the human influence on the planet. So the call to action urged in the 1972 Limits study is becoming more and more urgent.
But now it’s 42 year later and time to panic.
Enter Naomi Klein. She was delivering a talk in Berkeley on the evening of the 29th of September. Her basic thesis in This Changes Everything and in her talk was that climate change is so dire we need to unite in ways we never have before across political and economic lines, left/right political affections and habits. Without abandoning her critique of capitalism, central to The Shock Doctrine, she in her new book and that night emphasized that socialists have been as severe in exploitation of nature as anyone else. Now is the time to do things radically differently if our children are to have much of a future.
My earlier “panic” remark may hopefully turn out to be just a call to wake up to a few more possibilities than she has cited, some of them heartening. I think there is more positive there than even she has grasped for or found potential for in This Changes Everything. There are some perspectives that add a great deal to the positive side of a dangerous future. In my last article I mentioned, in the same spirit, that the graphs produced for the 1972 Limits to Growth didn’t include the massive and constant arrival on earth of a constant flux of energy from the sun that powers, through chlorophyll in plants, the entire enormously productive biomass of the planet. With the kind of solutions suggested by the Limits authors and her suggestions too, plus a few things I’ll shortly mention that they both miss, we may have a little better chance than otherwise.
What do I mean “things that they both miss?” “Extracted” fails entirely to mention city layout and design. She mentions the subject specifically only once, and in that mention features “urban design” along with recycling and other small steps as something we need to get beyond. She realizes we need to use climate change as a social justice solution that puts people and the politics of figuring out how to work together above all else. She does obliquely refer to the “ecocity” subject by referring to the benefits of not driving and switching to transit and bicycles, but her mention barely goes beyond “the mention that dismisses.”
The “mention that dismisses” I’ve noticed in planning (and design) public policy debates is the tactic that mentions a subject in public process but only in passing. Later if anyone says, “You didn’t even discuss this angle, option, policy or whatever,” the answer is, “Oh yes we did. Remember on the second day of the conference Howard brought it up in the third breakout session in the track dealing with bicycles…” or the like. Now the near silence on the subject is democratically justified and proven.
I’m sure, having now read This Changes Everything – a brilliant title I think, by the way – that she doesn’t intend to be dismissive of the subject. She just hasn’t paid much attention to it. And I also believe that she is right in using climate change as an opportunity to unite people of different political theory and economic persuasion. But she is lacking two important tools that could help her campaign to wake us up and get us on the track to the survival and resurgence on a healthy planet. They are the notion of the ecocity and the notion of exaggerated gamesmanship in economics and politics.
I should mention at the outset of explaining these concepts that Naomi Klein does cover solar and other renewable energy systems as crucial in solving climate problems and, later down the line, in uniting us all in a common cause of survival and renewal. She also covers the span of what was called in the 1970s “appropriate technologies” of recycling, conservation, organic farming and so on. And of course she deals with the positives in reducing the radical injustices of extreme inequality among us humans in terms of income and wealth. But she, as well as the Club of Rome, almost totally misses city and town design, layout and planning. Missing the largest thing humans create… well that’s a problem.
The ecocity represents what we build and implies also what we build with: whether it destroys much of the surface of the Earth and contaminates the atmosphere, causing climate disasters, or not. Maybe it doesn’t even need too, so severe is the threat of mineral depletion and resulting poisoning.
What we build with includes the minerals that turn into steel, concrete, glass and cut, sawed and constructed wood, and the entire supply chain of tools, fasteners, chemicals, paints and other coatings, machines, technologies, policies and habits that bring us our current sprawled out, car-dominated cities, towns and villages. In addition to the stuff of it all, the mineral/material stuff, there is the massive project of mining fossil fuels and burning them up to animate it all.
All this represents an economics and civilization based on massive use of material and energy from non-living, but, regarding energy, once-living sources. What ecocities imply by using the model of living organisms in their design and construction is an economics and civilization that recognizes the natural origin of all the above. That is, the minerals cooked up in exploding early stars and the energy from the sun powering chlorophyll. That investment alighting on Earth as nice, wholesome, everyday sunshine created the organic matter that became fossil fuels during the last 500 million years. But that complement of coal, oil and gas fuels we are burning up in just 200 or 300 years.
We humans will always need to use energy from somewhere. We could recycle most of our mineral wealth pretty much endlessly. But we need to wean ourselves from the diet of pass-through mineral and burn-it-all fossil fuels (and no doubt the radiations-soaked nuclear option) early history habit. That accomplished in our childhood, and over several generations if we pull it off, we will discover ourselves in a civilization based instead of the sun, plants, chlorophyll and only a very small component of non-renewable energy sources, if any such sources at all. We can use wood and biofuels, and other organic sources to make plastics and other amazing articles for a materially creative and compassionate civilization. We can still make concrete with solar energy and recycle lots of steel. And we will. If we don’t, we’ll radically impoverish the planet and possibly eliminate people along with the ever-lengthening list of plants and animals we are driving into extinction.
To attain such a biology-based civilization running on the sun’s gift to the Earth we will need to do a suite of things seen as a whole-systems solution of several parts. Without elaborating here, these solutions involve curbing and gradually reducing our gigantic population by intent rather than collapse; re-imagining and reorganizing agriculture to be far more organic and far less based on chemicals; and intensive use of energy, tweaking nature’s own processes of sequestration of carbon into soils and sediments, a strategy I call “natural carbon sequestration.” We’ll have to make deep investment into giving back to nature, recognizing how it has given us life and sustains us still as bad little children, most of us trying to grow up, and promising us, if not too abused by us, to continue giving us… everything.
Of course in Ecocity Builders and its circles we feature the reshaped city, the ecocity, as a indispensable part of the strategy. Those familiar with us know we mean the ecocity as the compact, ecologically healthy city, with its essential parts close together for efficient and productive functioning. Think renewable energy, energy conservation, pedestrian and bicycle and transit design, building soils with organic wastes and preserving and revitalizing biodiversity and that’s most of it.
We all love games. But they can get out of hand.
The implications of this simple principle are profound, I believe, in terms Naomi Klein should know about since she is so deeply aware of and concerned about economics. The economic implications are immense. The competition between what is often seen as capitalism and socialism squaring off against one another ends up in endless injustices. It often leads to wars, cold and hot, assassinations, and slander to kill reputations and keep many would-be contributing good people marginalized.
People like games. There is no problem within reasonable limits. The problem comes when the competitions get more extreme. We seem to like the entertainment value of the more extreme. We have a weakness for flirting with danger while disproportionately respecting the skills of winning games. The best of the best in games become heroes throughout whole cultures and when it gets to economics and politics, there is nothing like a little violence once in a while to really get attention. Think Putin invading and annexing the Crimea coinciding with his meteoric rise in popularity to over 85% positive rating among Russians. Similarly, notice almost nobody in the Congress of the United States standing up to even discuss the Bush/Cheney invasion of Iraq based on what practically every one around the world, from UN weapons inspectors on the ground down to the citizen in the streets of the world, knew to be lies.
Getting a little deeper we can notice two very basic kinds of games and James Carse writes about them in a book that names them in its title: “Finite and Infinite Games.” He makes the point that games are activities we engage in voluntarily (or else they are not games but assignments). The finite game has rules and an end point, with a winner and loser at that point. We agree to those rules and jump on in. If we win, nice prizes from material ones to ego boosting ones, reward skill or luck. If we lose, we are free to try again. In business, academia, professions, arts and politics you want to keep winning until “success” is yours, usually measured in wealth but sometimes status, honor, reputation, or some mix of the above. The object is finality, knowing what’s what, and winning.
The infinite game is one in which the players are free to change the rules while playing and the objective is not to conclude but to keep the play going forever, throughout life. Since human lives overlap some of us play that game deep into the future, perhaps hoping to create the Third Reich that will last a thousand year, the American Millennium, everyone converted to Christianity or Islam, or maybe a healthy future on Earth enduring, and enduring and enduring. The infinite game is still a serious pursuit even though rules change; they have to change by persuasion and agreement or it’s not a game because a game has to be played by volunteers, not slaves.
Here’s where it gets interesting in Naomi Klein’s world of economic and political thinking: capitalism vs. socialism is a game of two sides. People play one emphasizing the individual as the highest attainment of evolution or God’s product to date – capitalism. The other says the collective is of highest value, that society progresses or sinks together – socialism. Capitalism believes in free markets as the most holy thing. Socialism believes in regulation and planning for the common benefit as most holy.
Creativity and hard work on the part of the individual to produce something to sell to the public justifies capitalist theory when the capitalist offers something the people like, want and buy. Thus, in capitalism, self-interest is the best route to the common good. However, socialists criticize, the material wealth generated by capitalists can accrue toward monopoly. The rich abuse workers and burn up too much of the world’s resources without sharing them. The individual capitalist uses his wealth to buy off those who might criticize by reducing their pay. So let us make the rules that share, the socialists argue.
Both sides are right and both sides are wrong. There is nothing wrong with being a decent capitalist offering a product or a service and taking a reasonable profit. And there is nothing wrong with insisting that we all share more equitably in both the rewards and in the deliberations leading to public policies regarding the economy. Capitalists worship the market. Socialists honor regulation. Both are needed, otherwise society is like a car careening forward (the power of the market to set prices and function smoothly) on the power of its engine. But without the guidance of the person at the wheel and the action of the breaks, if those functions are not performed, expect a crash and soon. And in fact that’s exactly what happened when capitalism crashed in 1929 and 2008 and “socialism” bailed it out in the form of government policy decisions and gigantic loans, interest adjustments and other banking moves. In the aftermath of 1929 that’s probably what saved us from fascism when most of the rest of the world thought it looked reasonable as a means out of a real jam.
Where both sides are wrong is in the exaggerated importance they give to their side of the pair of actions needed to progress. Both engine and breaks, forward energy and proper guidance and regulation, what capitalism and socialism champion, are needed.
The only trouble is, among finite gamers, you can’t get much more than ho-hum from the audience if you don’t pretend your side is superior and you turn cooperation into competition, and even better, real conflict. You can’t win the attention of those who might advance you in business, politics or elsewhere, or even those who might want to marry you, if you don’t get a little attention for the way you play the finite game. And only if you occasionally win and in general display your skill in the game. Get a little fanatic and absolute about your game and you can become a demagogue or the worshiper of a leader who is an exterminating angel in some religion or philosophy that insists on winning in a finite game that’s actually deadly: killing the opposition. Exaggerated gamesmanship can, and frequently does, lead to war.
Exaggerated gamesmanship in economics and politics is played within something that could be called capital economics. That’s capital economics, not capitalist.
First principle here is that our human-created economics are completely based on nature’s economics, and on earth that means dependent upon the sun, minerals, water from rain to oceans, air and biology of the planet. Early human economics appear to be gift economics in which the family or small band shared whatever was taken from nature. The first gift: mother’s milk to children. Then there was generally the man (somewhat specialized for the task) defending, killing game and bringing it home to share, and the woman engaging in foraging from nature and more dominantly transforming nature into artifacts and products on the home front.
Enter “the artifact list.” My first real job, when I was sixteen, was digging up Native American ruins with the Museum of Anthropology of New Mexico in Santa Fe. Out there in the mountains, forest and dry valleys, the culture that disappeared about 1,000 years ago produced a rather short artifact list. It consisted of bows and arrows, articles of clothing, tools for digging and scraping, the pit houses they dug and covered with logs, branches, twigs, leaves and dirt and lived in part of the time. Their fired pottery was the high tech of the time; their herbs, their medicine. And there was little else. Their artifact list could be written down on a single side of a single sheet of paper.
The artifact list of our material culture today includes so many things it would be impossible to physically lift and carry a complete book bearing the list. It would be too heavy. From Boeing 747 jet airplanes down to a tiny specialized screw. Those are two artifacts I choose to mention right now because I am on a 747 heading from China, where I was lecturing about ecological cities. Yesterday as the plane sat on the tarmac (an artifact) still attached to the jet way (another artifact) the captain announced over the in-plane speaker system (another artifact) that two gaskets (other artifacts) had been discovered to be loose and we needed a couple of screws (artifact) to fit where two had mysteriously disappeared before we could take off. United Airlines didn’t have the spare two screws but China Air did. So, the captain told us, we were in the process of negotiating to buy the two screws. Maybe we could pull it off. They did – sort of. But a mechanic apparently stripped one of the screws during installation. Anyway, for one screw (another artifact) or the pieces it was supposed to secure (two more artifacts) the entire flight was canceled and more than two hundred of us clamored onto two buses and a fleet of taxis and crossed half of Beijing to a hotel for the night and started all over again the next morning. Now I’m in a plane I hope has a good screw (artifact) holding the engine casing parts (two artifacts) together.
The meaning of all this is that the length of the artifact list is in some sense proportional to the size of the cities we create. The longer the list, the more people required for producing a variety of things, the larger whatever houses them—and that “whatever” is the city. Are they too big? Definitely the artifact list today has a massive quantity of nonsense items on it for useless entertainment (appropriately called “distractions” sometimes) and even many things designed explicitly for destruction: guns for police and criminals (as well as a few subsistence hunters), and airplanes, drones, bombs and warships to make sure our side is successful in securing the fossil fuels needed in the exaggerated gamesmanship of international economics—what Winston Churchill often frankly called dominance.
So… I offer the idea that gamesmanship is fine and entertaining within limits, but, as in infinite growth economics, when rendered extreme is extremely nasty in its implications. Maybe we should relax a little and think about what on our artifact list is really relevant to a healthy future. Could we play the capitalist/socialist game a little more reasonably? We will always be bickering about what is fair, as it will always be that some people contribute more than others to the social well being. But should we make such a big deal of it that some starve and others kill each other? The capitalist/socialist back and forth will always exist in terms of more or less for either of the two sides of the market/regulation balance, which is just fine. Back and forth can be like a dance and a pleasurable game between opposites, like partners swaying and flying about drenched in music. The my-religion-is-better-than-yours, or my-country, my-race… Well these things can get pretty destructive. But with a little tolerance turning into appreciation for difference it can be pretty wonderful. Is Naomi Klein right to say the climate change situation gives us a larger issue to understand, a larger, survival issue even to unite us all, including the other animals and plants on the planet? Yes.
Let my two charts try to speak for all this as a closing of this article.
Richard Register can be reached at email@example.com
By Richard Register, founder, Ecocity Builders
His name is Wang Rusong, last name first in China, and Wang pronounced “Wong” – much softer in sound, as befits this wonderful man.
At five minutes after midnight on November 28 in a Beijing hospital my friend Wang Rusong died. I got the message only a few short hours later, California time, from my friend and ecocity architect Paul Downton in Australia. Rusong was one of the kindest, gentlest, most hard working, insightful, original, dedicated and effective, humble and important people I’ve even met. Stuffing so much positive into one person is quite remarkable. Well, that was Rusong. You could almost not notice him until you realized what he was up to, capable of, of the kindest heart yet with a determination of steel.
It was friendship at first sight – or rather sound. It was 1990 and the First International Ecocity Conference had ended the day before. I was at the empty office contemplating the chaos that took place there four days earlier as everyone dropped everything and evacuated for the heart of Berkeley where the real action was. We’d rented or commandeered seven locations for the conference in downtown and promptly forgot all about the command center that was to be the office. Now I looked around the scramble of random things left about from the hasty departure – papers, pens, calendar, posters, reminder notes taped to the wall…
The phone rang.
A soft but urgent voice came on the line, slight Chinese accent, slight musical lilt. It would sound the same for the next 24 years. Right off it said, “Is the conference still happening?”
“I’m afraid not. Yesterday was the last day. I dropped by the office just to clean up a little.”
“Oh no. I feel so lonely.”
“Lonely, why lonely?”
“I thought I was the only one and there’s this whole conference of people working on ecological cities.”
Rusong was 700 miles north doing post-doctoral research as a Visiting Professor in mathematics at Washington State University. He explained that for the last several years he had found no one of enthusiasm to listen to his thoughts about reshaping cities based on principles from ecology. I learned about all that later through wandering conversation – he never “bragged” about his accomplishments or pursuits. For example, as a leading ecologist in the country he had been selected by China’s national planners to evaluate the site for the proposed Three Gorges Dam in the early 1980s. He had come back with his usual broad perspective that took into account the communities there and recommended that the dam should not be built. It would displace two million people, saturate soils and destabilize steep slopes causing hundreds of landslides, muck up the river-come-300-mile-long-lake with silt and scum from erosion and upstream industrial and agricultural waste, and drive native species to extinction. All that happened of course. (Including the end on this planet, and anywhere else in the universe for that matter, for the Yangtze River dolphin, last seen or even “thought” seen around 2006.) But all that he accomplished – and dreamed of – was to be revealed to me in bits and pieces.
On the phone that day after the conference we learned a little about each other. I suggested, “Why don’t you come down here to Berkeley some time soon and we can spend some time together. I’ll give you a tour around and you can meet some of us. We’ll put you up in a little hotel…” He zipped on down less than two weeks later.
Thus began our twenty-four year friendship. Rusong visited Berkeley two times in the next six months or so before returning to China. On one trip seven or eight of us went to look over Village Homes, the suburban paradise just west of Davis, California for suburbanites in love with their fruits, vegetables and bicycles. It’s definitely the greenest suburb development I’d ever seen, with its meandering back yard-linking bicycle and foot paths, absolute minimum city regulation width streets, solar greenhouse on almost every house, sandy bioswales in low spots for collecting storm water run off to slowly recharge the water table… We picked and ate scrumptious mulberries from an enormous tree, leaving every hand bright purple for the rest of the trip.
Our little two-car tour also visited architect Peter Calthorpe’s New Urbanist project south of Sacramento called Laguna West. Bill Mastin mentioned that the New Urbanist doctrine suggested highly mixed-use features such as at the community center of Laguna West should be within about a quarter mile of most of the housing. Access by proximity, a short walk away. But at Laguna West, he noted, artificial canals had been constructed and lake-like water features surrounded the community center instead of homes. Bridges connecting the housing to the center and stretching to low-density development around the meandering streets were easily bikeable but not so easily walkable routes to the otherwise useful commercial and cultural core. Mostly, everyone would be driving. Rusong, standing at water’s edge in Laguna West took one look and said, as he must have thought in the Three Gorges Valley around 1982, “Standing water not good feng shui. Flowing water much better.”
Many, many conferences
Rusong missed the First International Ecocity Conference but made it to Adelaide, Australia in 1992 for the second. Just before we were about to meet in the village of Yoff outside Dakar, Senegal, for Ecocity 3, the US Congress Republicans fought off Bill Clinton’s new budget, temporarily shutting down the government. The cut in customs staffing at US international terminals meant Rusong suddenly couldn’t exercise his through-US ticket. He never made it to join us and was quite upset once again. But he himself with his crew from the Chinese Academy of Science hosted Ecocity 5 in Shenzhen, China in 2002. Rusong made it to Bangalore, India, 2006 and San Francisco 2008 and Istanbul, Turkey 18 months later in 2009. Then he started having bouts of illness – stomach cancer – and missed the next two, Montreal and Nantes. But every time I saw him, which was more than once a year average since then, he constantly said he was getting better.
Rusong was one of the founding officers of the Ecological Society of China (President or Vice President – I don’t remember for sure). Partially in that capacity, and through his position as Director of the Center for Ecological and Environmental Research at the Chinese Academy of Science, he was the driving force behind a series of ecology conferences to which he invited a small cluster of foreigners including myself. Eleven times he did this for me from 2000 to 2013, all expenses paid.
My stay at the Academy got me into trouble once when I talked about the virtues of the very spare but comfortable and graceful Science Academy’s Guest House where he hosted me once. The room was about twice as wide as the narrow bed but had a small bathroom, nice desk, chair, shelf, lamp and efficient layout with a balcony with one chair outside for the fresh air. Every morning I’d open your door to the hall and there would be a very large thermos of tea with cup. Propped against the wall was an issue of the China Daily, China’s English-language newspaper supported by the government, which vice versa, the newspaper supported. Quite naturally it had very interesting articles you’d never find in The West. Some were answers to previously unanswered questions, some were new questions – also without locally supplied answers.
The way I got in trouble was that I touted the virtues of the humble but more than adequate accommodations during talk in Tianjin some years later. The subject of the preceding panel had been all about luxurious “green” hotels with enormous rooms and sumptuous, 90% unused trappings, with enough space for a badminton court. I said these designs had no notion of “enough” and the Chinese Academy of Science Guest House should be a much more serious model for genuinely “green” facilities. Silence. I wasn’t invited back.
Efforts to build
Rusong was dedicated not just to studying math, his first specialty. He researched ecology, cities, Chinese ancient philosophy, and ecocity theory while running a research facility and teaching graduate ecology and planning students, organizing conferences, and writing dozens of published scientific papers. He also worked hard to get things built. He became involved in four cities, two of which I’ll mention: Xiamen and Huaibei.
I was on a one month tour of China when Rusong called my host and said I had to leave a little early from Chongqing and rush to a special meeting in Xiamen. OK, I guess I’ll find out why when I get there. A beautiful Chinese woman met me at the airport with the largest bouquet I’d even seen. She handed me a note in the taxi and I said to myself, “Uh-oh. What’s this?” It requested me to please have a ten minute talk ready when I arrive at the luncheon. They were giving a prize to a really big developer. Well I’ll trust Rusong to find a good one.
I arrived on stage with everyone already eating and things started off immediately, no time for Rusong to further brief me. My talk was general but as usual unkind to sprawl development. What I didn’t know was that the audience was an assembly of about 200 people who had bought plots in a supposedly greener than usual suburban… sprawl. The audience clapped a little diffidently but Rusong got them cheerful again. Then he handed me the prize to hand to the developer, all in Chinese, which I don’t speak. All smiles at that point.
What was that all about, I asked Rusong at first opportunity. He explained he’d been having a hard time finding a developer with a really great completed project whose work he wanted to encourage. He was trying to support one that seemed to have a few good ideas in advance of the development so that they’d try harder and get a better development. At the post-luncheon reception for Rusong, myself, the developer and his senior staff, the developer shook my hand and said in Chinese (I was told) “Thanks for the prize.” It took me a little by surprise. I just smiled and executed one of those small bows used for such occasions in China. I could only hope the translation of my talk had been as diplomatic as possible. Apparently no feathers ruffled too much. Maybe some in that audience who looked a combination of puzzled and thoughtful might have had a few interesting ideas gestating in their heads.
I tell this story largely because I want to show you a picture. It’s of Rusong with three of his friends in the location just outside of Xiamen that was to become the developers’ project. The place could have been a slightly wetter, mountainous, rocky Arizona landscape. Rusong had put on some weight and had just had a “hard attack.” He was to lose that weight pretty fast. I told him, “Please don’t work so hard. We want you around a long time. We need you.”
The other city, Huaibei, I visited four times with Rusong. He added Kirstin Miller and Paul Downton, co-host with Cherie Hoyle of Ecocity 2 in Adelaide, to some of our entourages. We met with industrial diamond maker David Hall there who is interested both in mining technology and has a range of ideas for ecocities. We all gathered with the Mayor of Huaibei, his staff and his planning department who was to all appearances excited at the potential of ecocity projects in his city. We went on a tour of the local diamond making and coal mining industries. We were there largely to help think through a transition away from coal, which, said our hosts, they would start running out of in five to ten years. I was suggesting building a new section of town that would be a powerful model for energy conservation, a leadership position and hence a means to establish a kind of Curitiba-like energy in that location. It would be a go-to destination for pilgrims of the next generation cities, the sustainable, the “eco” cities of the future. Dream on. But I insist it is possible.
Then there in Huaibei came another Rusong surprise. We were touring one of the most intense facilities for manufacture I’d even seen. Standing, flaming, pumping, throbbing machines, literally ground-shaking machines larger than three or four story buildings sheltered inside a dark, brooding hangar that could house not just a 747 but a dirigible or two. Rusong said quite casually, “I worked here for six years as a shop floor foreman making these machines.” What! Rusong in the coal industry? “I was trying to make enough money to go back to school and get my doctorate,” he explained.
What came of the effort in Hauibei? I drew up my idea in a series of drawings for a small ecocity on the edge of one of their lakes and sent it in. Paul Downton actually got paid some and had a little back and forth with the Mayor’s office. Then more silence. Two years later I asked Rusong what happened. Our friend the mayor had lost the next election. The new mayor wanted to forget the last one so he could more easily build his own legacy.
What I owe to him in my work
Owing something to Rusong would be a strange idea. You don’t owe Rusong because he’s as far from a reciprocating investment as can be found. He simply gives. But in the usual way of helping others, I “owe” him a lot. Rusong was well established by the time I met him, solidly ensconced in the Chinese Academy of Science and a leading member of many societies around China. His material basics seemed to be well covered and I’m close to certain there was nothing he wanted from others other than to be part of a community of people trying to help improve things.
On some earnest friends suggestions Rusong ran for the Chinese Peoples Congress and became one of its 1,200 members. He mentioned this to me casually over a year after the fact. Something oblique made a political connection in the conversation and an, “Oh by the way” popped up. He seemed rather surprised and delighted. I didn’t think he was in the Communist Party, though by then I’d worked with quite a few people who were and had their business cards among my many. No, he was in an ecology party he said, something akin to the German Greens. The Congress, he said quite unselfconsciously, was advisor to the Party and the Central Government, but of more influence every year.
Rusong enjoyed the work. But then he was drafted for one job that was important but decidedly not enjoyable. The Great Szechuan Earthquake of 2008 killed 29,200 people and left 18,200 missing, presumed buried in the landslides and swept away in lake outburst floods. Rusong was rushed to the site to help plan the recovery efforts. Through tears he spoke of the shoddily constructed schools that had collapsed, killing hundreds of young students. What he had seen with his eyes…
I don’t just “owe” him for the 11 trips to important conferences in China plus dozens of introductions to all sorts of people all over the country; for risking the hosting – conferences are always tricky mustangs to ride – of one of our larger conferences: about 500 participants in Shenzhen. There, by the way, when Maurice Strong canceled due to heart surgery and several high ranking Chinese officials bailed, the City of Shenzhen reneged on a $20,000 payment they had pledged to the conference saying Rusong had not delivered as promised. So he fronted the money himself by tightening his center’s budget at the Academy of Science over the next couple years.
Not only all that, and for being utterly true to the cause, Rusong decided my book “Ecocities” needed to be published to help the movement in China. He got some of his most fluent grad students to translate it and moved it right through to publishing. Now it is probably my most important asset in getting me talks and consultancies in China.
In all my experience I can think of no other person who has so openly and generously just given and given and given. And with such a bright-eyed and ever so kind smile.
When I heard Rusong had died I seemed to fall suddenly into a great dark vacuum. “Oh no,” I said to myself, “I feel so lonely.”
Richard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Colombia architects conference and permaculture
Climate change is in the news today as I write and as the United Nations meets in New York City on the subject. Three-hundred thousand pro-future demonstrators in the street greeted the delegates. Down in Bogota, Colombia four weeks earlier it was also a major topic at the Universidad Piloto where the Architecture Program hosted their Tenth Annual International Conference entitled “Designing Nature, Humanity, and Culture: Permaculture for the Sustainable Development of Urban Habitat.” This was the second largest audience I’d ever faced, about 2,000 students and public guests. My largest speaking audience was 3,000 at a conference on design – not just sustainable but in general – in Seoul, Korea. Wonderful audiences in both cases, those enthusiastic, bright, young faces. The street in front of the large downtown theater was stuffed with eager audience when we speakers arrived, forcing us through the backstage door like some sort of star entertainers, which of course felt ego-gratifying. We made our way down dark hallways to back stage facing out on a cavernous empty space. Half an hour later even the balcony was almost completely filled.
The main speakers were from Colombia, Canada, Mexico, Cuba and Brazil. From the United States came myself and Tony Brown, Director/Founder of the Icosa Institute in Prescott, Arizona. In the 1970s and 1980s Tony spent 13 years deeply involved in Paolo Soleri’s Arcosanti, most of that time as director of construction on site. I hadn’t known him well when I lived there in 1976-77, but much enjoyed getting to know him better in Bogota. At Icosa he and a bevy of faculty teach design and architecture from theory based in ecology to hands on workshops and tours to visit Arcosanti about 35 miles away.
The subjects covered were fascinating and the group of speakers and organizers as pleasurable as any ever to host one of my ecocity talks. There was a strong emphasis on permaculture, the study and discipline of a permanent agriculture based on similar principles to our own ecocity thinking in Ecocity Builders, but mainly focused on organic agriculture in a wholes systems context. Permaculture also addresses the built environment of the single homestead and small village to sometimes, though not often, the whole city. The conference also placed a strong emphasis on working with long-term indigenous village communities there in Colombia’s swampy Pacific coast where almost all buildings stand on posts in water, with boats and elevated paths, mostly wooden plank paths, uniting the villages. Also featured: rural areas in Mexico, favelas in Brazil, and in my show, from everyday urban living – BIG traffic jams – to ecocity initiatives in China. The talk on Cuba was especially interesting with urban agriculture and village development as subjects wedged between a number of comments on the effect of the United States’ embargo of the island. That looked a little perverse from their perspective, given that the United States’ largest trading partner and biggest banker is the largely Communist country of China.
The lead off speaker was Holger Hieronimi from Germany, now a longtime resident of Mexico, a practicing builder and farmer in the permaculture method. I enjoyed numerous roving discussions with him on our tours and at meals during which he introduced me to an impressive book I bought as soon as I returned to Oakland. If you were wondering if I’d ever get back to climate change, here is where everything collides: “Extracted – How the Quest for Mineral Wealth Is Plundering the Planet.” Holger recommended it forcefully with a serious determined look on his Werner Herzog face. If there’s a reason we are sinking into a morass of world wide problems, with climate change perhaps the reason with the most consequential implications is: everything. And that everything’s key physical source is extraction of minerals – by a slightly expanded definition.
“Extracted” – No joke, collapse is coming. How bad?…
There are the metals of various purities, through non-metallic mineral deposits such as borax, potash and salts, on down to raw gravel and sand for construction and landscaping. These are all extracted. Included in the book are soils, minded for living plants and the animals that graze. Then there are the fossil fuels: coal, oil, gas and various mediums from sandstones to sands permeated with fossil organic compounds called hydrocarbons. Mining those shales and tar sands gives us the energy to mine everything else we mine, plus run the machines of building and fertilizing crops of, killing pests of, and preserving and transporting and keeping cool and more or less fresh our foods. Plus the energy from extracted fossil fuels represents most of the energy for building our cities, towns and villages and running around in our transportation systems.
Climate change comes in as one of the gigantic multi-source outcomes from the multi-source problems of such extraction, plus associated life-style elements such as deciding to be small or large consumers, drivers in our vehicles of one type or another, weapons makers for real security or enhancing danger, injustice and violence in the world, and so on. Climate was not a big emphasis of the 1972 book “Limits to Growth” that made the Club of Rome famous. But the overall “bell curve” pattern that can be represented on a graph for human collective consumption of mineable materials represents the aggregated overall pattern leading to societal collapse. Ugo Bardi, author of “Extracted,” is a present-day member of the Club of Rome. As you will see, he defends the earlier book in his of copyright 2014.
By 1973, people were in a panic about “Limits to Growth.” Rather than think about strategic methods to change the course of history, human security and even evolution of life on Earth in a positive direction, people went not just into denial but attack mode. I’ll show here in this newsletter a chart from “Extracted” what those long-term trends looked like according to the 1972 data. A reminder first, though: the study that led to “Limits to Growth” was accomplished by dozens of the best scientists in the relevant fields and vetted by other scientists not involved in the study or resulting book. Just to put it in the text here, the growth curves that climbed, topped out then collapsed in a bell shaped curve were 1) industrial output, 2) food production, 3) population and, lagging a little, 4) pollution. The planet’s resource base in geological strata and soils – to be mined according to our expanded definition of mining – moves in a gently downward curve from the left side of the graph where we have abundance, dropping ever faster until most of our economically viable resources are gone, then leveling out at a level best called scarcity.
I’ll add a quote here from research in my present writing project, my book called “World Rescue – an Economics Built on What We Build.” Yes, some things, unlike the fossil hydrocarbons that are burned, can be recycled. But even when resources are tied up in our various products, there is an attrition rate headed toward no available virgin resources, which I call the Rust Factor. This is the most concise and dramatic comment I’ve heard on that subject, from the college text book “Human Geography – Landscape of Human Activities” by Fellmann, Getis and Getis. They say the following.
The extractive industries depend on the exploitation of minerals unevenly distributed in amounts and concentrations determined by past geologic events, not by contemporary market demand. In physically workable and economically usable deposits, minerals constitute only a tiny fraction of the earth’s crust – far less than 1%. That industrialization has proceeded so rapidly and so cheaply is the direct result of an earlier ready availability of rich and accessible deposits of the requisite materials. Economies grew fat by skimming the cream. It has been suggested that should some catastrophe occur to return human cultural levels to a pre-agricultural state, it would be extremely unlikely that humankind ever again could move along the road of industrialization with the resources available for its use.
Most people not tuned in to environmental activism and also concerned for resources have heard a bizarrely twisted version of what the “Limits to Growth” actually said. Those wanting to see their wealth, or in many more cases probably, their simple comforts grow, closed their doors of perception and turned off their internal reasoning processes almost just upon hearing anyone say growth couldn’t just go on forever. GDP growth still remains the Bible and fighting Koran of the mainstream economists’ religion too. This has to lead to collapse. It’s no joke.
But what Ugo Bardi has to say about the denial, the assault of misrepresentation and outright lies is this:
The story of “Limits” is so drenched in urban legends that it would take an entire chapter to unravel it, or even a whole book (which has been written). Here, we can just mention the fact that almost all the legends still told today on the subject are just that: legends. It is not true that “Limits” predicted that the world would run out of some specific resources before the end of the 20th century. It is not true that it predicted imminent famines. It is not true that the study didn’t use historic data as the basis for its models. It is not true that it was the result of an evil plot by multinational companies to exterminate inferior races and take over world government. In short, the study was not wrong.
Now please refer to the first graph reproduced here. Pretty discouraging. It looks like sometime in the early 21st century, give or take a decade, we are going to hit one or more of the tops of the bell curve graph trajectories.
But now for my point to differ with the authors of “Limits” and with Ugo Bardi. The graph may feature some inexorable truths about our planet’s resources. But the 1972 authors and Mr. Bardi too, were not looking at all the mega conditions on the planet. The first of the two main ones, I’d maintain, is the absolutely enormous flood of solar energy that alights half the planet at any given time. The second is the stunning invention by life itself called chlorophyll in plants that takes that solar energy and captures it for use in the entire biosphere. This is not only all us living things on earth but the fossil hydrocarbons in soil and mineral deposits as well. So these need to be added to the graph for an even more realistic notion of what our future may hold.
The Club of Rome and Bardi have been looking at the dire coming circumstances as a glass half empty and going down. I’m offering the idea that at a steady rate the sun and biosphere are constantly streaming energy and biological matter into the glass, too. So what I’ve added, in the second graph, is a strong horizontal line representing what I call the “solar constant” and a line representing biomass, meaning the quantum of living matter using that solar energy source and working hard to get the planet back up to both maximum biomass and biodiversity – for such is the most basic tendency of life, the most basic pattern of evolution on Earth. So mine is not exactly a full-glass vision, but one that integrates both the bad news and the good gifts of nature on the planet.
You will notice in my amended projections that I think we are going to have some really bad times coming, with population collapse being probably the most elemental symptom. I mean collapse by neglect of overpopulation, not calm reduction to sane levels by human intention and design. We also face political chaos resulting from the compounding problems represented by the bell curves on the graph and the resources curve headed downward.
But as humanity learns the lessons of unsustainable demand, the depths of bad news need not be as bad or total in collapse as “Limits” projected and Bardi expounded for sometime this 21st century. But learning is the key. Maybe there could be permanent recovery, rejoining the other life forms in patterns of normal to healthy evolution. We would then see some version of what I’ve plotted as the beginnings of that post-collapse resource recovery.
Why did so many people reject “Limits” so violently? Maybe, as I originally thought, because of greed and desire for un-hassled comforts. But part of it was the “fault” of the authors in the first place by not considering the enormous two resources I’ve cited here: massive solar energy income and staggering biological power for life on Earth in its full richness.
There are two other “failures” too, though we could call them innocent oversights given the preoccupations of everyday life and overwhelming political problems that seem to be always with us. The first is an accurate sense of how long things take to mature, so to speak, and the final one for this essay, has to do with ecocities.
The last time I saw Ernest Callenbach, “Chick” Callenbach to his friends, I didn’t know he had very recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer. I thought it would be fun to travel with him to Martinez, California to see the famous beaver dams right there in the middle of the small city. I was eager to spend time with my friend, author of “Ecotopia,” the 1975 novel about an imaginary country ruled by society’s laws in turn ruled mainly by nature’s laws. The trip with Chick was 45 minutes each way on the train, which I always enjoy, trundling along the shoreline of the beautiful San Francisco Bay. After staking out the beaver dams we enjoyed a long wandering conversation lunch at a very good Mexican restaurant. But what I remembered most was a comment Chick made on the train about his book and the predictions it implied.
“Ecotopia” was a fantasy about Northern California, Oregon and Washington seceding from the US and setting up an ecologically informed civilization – from farming methods right up to city design, inclusive, of course, of the cultural proclivities of Ecotopians and courting and mating rituals of the locals. It was written in the early 1970s and finally made print when Chick gathered a few friends to invest in it and self-publish. Later it became a counter culture classic with several more mainstream publishers in the deal.
“Ecotopia” imagined changes coming on strong in the 1980s and 1990s. Those didn’t happen. His famous last words on that train ride that ring down to me through the years are “Things take longer than one thinks.” But if there ever was a hopeful vision, in many ways he got that right, if too fast for the way things usually work out. Of course Ecotopia may never happen. But we can try – unlike some version of the “Limits” graph that approaches relentlessly.
The other thing missing from both “Limits” and “Extracted” is the ecocity. It is not missing from “Ecotopia” however, even if Chick’s version and mine have some minor differences. The principles are basically the same. One might ask how could people miss that existing cities exemplify radically different impacts on resources and nature depending on the way they are organized and function? Why not pay attention to that? With old European city cores, that started as pedestrian designs, using on the order of a third as much energy and land per person as sprawling American car cities, we are looking at around a 66% reduction in demand for both land and energy. Are we really seeking solutions to climate change problems? 66% right off the top is what’s known as real money. As I’m writing this article, everyone who cares about climate change is clamoring for renewable energy sources, mainly solar and wind. But I search the newspapers in vain for “urban design” or “city layout,” or “the big demand side solution is far better city design, cities being the largest creations of our species.”
Does “Extracted” have anything to say about cities? Searching for the answer to that question is one of the two main reasons that I read the book immediately – and carefully – upon learning about it and arriving home. The answer: absolutely not. Amazing. On and on it goes.
Bardi’s book is 347 pages and the only things that could be considered even tangential to saying something is wrong with city design and layout we find on just two pages. Again, keeping in mind that cities are the largest creations of our species, here is his list under the topic “simplifying lifestyles”: “…eating less energy intensive foods, using public transportation instead of cars [ecocity design connected but not explicit], avoiding plane travel and long-distance vacations, Sharing large equipment (like cars) [a statement tending to accept cars, that is, actually antagonistic toward the notions at the core of reshaping cities for sustainability]…, and “focusing social and business interests in a relatively small local area.” That last one again hints at but doesn’t hone in on the target. On the next page he does ask, “Why not move closer to where you need to go and walk there?” Good opening question showing there is something of an insight lurking about, but the answer is that the vast majority of us can’t do that until we design and reshape cities so we actually can.
You can reach Richard Register at email@example.com
 Human Geography – Landscape of Human Activities, Tenth Edition, Fellmann, Getis and Getis, Mc Graw-Hill, 2008, p.282
 Ugo Bardi, Extraction – How the Quest for Mineral Wealth Is Plundering the Planet, Chelsea Green, White River Junction,Vermont, p. 168
 Ugo Bardi, Ibid., p. 232
Twenty years ago, toward the end of September 1994, work started on the liberation of Codornices Creek. This creek, comprised of four healthy tributaries becoming one stream near the base of the Berkeley Hills, is the second largest in the Berkeley area. For 50 years it was buried under asphalt between 8th and 9th Street on the Berkeley/Albany border. About eight feet above the forlorn lightless waters in their concrete box culvert were parked oil-dripping cars and a vacant lot covered in 8-foot high fennel. Couldn’t see into the fennel forest, or once in it, out of it; a real dry-land jungle. Savory, if you like licorice flavor or smell.
This time the bulldozers were on our side. In fact the operator who dug the rough trench to create the small valley the creek now flows through was so delighted to be “building” a creek that for the first time in his life he worked for half pay.
Let’s see, to do the math, I’ve been there most Saturdays in the first couple years and Sundays after that, averaging about 35 times a year puttering about watering orchard trees, thinning the natives for maximum biodiversity, planting native trees, bushes and flowers, raking the path, often with company, sometimes without. What’s missing are weeks when I was traveling or when there was a nice steady rain. A very heavy rain and I hurried over to see the rushing water. Twice I found the stream leaping and flooding into the streets of University Village where dwell 4,000 UC Berkeley students, their spouses and children, most of them from foreign countries. At 35 times a year that’s 20 times 35 equals approximately 700 trips to the creek. My home away from home.
The history of Codornices’ rejuvenation goes way back to 1980 when several of us woke up to the wonders of urban creek “daylighting” – bringing buried creeks back to the world of the sun and moon, native species and the children who always love creeks – another native species. In 1980 our founders crew was engaged in trying to convince the city of Berkeley to open Strawberry Creek, Berkeley’s central and largest creek. It was a battle, but a speedy one by today’s standards. Santa Fe Rail Road had donated their old right of way to the city – what to do with it? The creek ran in a thick arch concrete culvert right underneath.
After a few reputation-enhancing creek clean up events and a number of city hearings in rapid succession, in one year we’d secured from City Council instructions for the city’s “Design Section” (I believe it was called) of the City Public Works Department to provide drawings for two conceptual schemes, one with an open creek, one with a closed version. Also desired were basketball courts, some small children’s playground equipment, and a linear landscaped park where the tracks were to be pulled up.
The decision came at a public meeting I attended with the other first activists including Carole Schemmerling, who went on to found the national organization based in Berkeley called Urban Creeks Council. Anne Riley, who was recently brought on to the staff at the State of California Water Resources Department, was there as was a long time creek fan named Dimitri Stepenoff. Dimitri had introduced me to an article from several years earlier called, “Fly Fishermen of the Berkeley Hills.” Really?! I still have a copy. Once, the ever-so-true story goes, there were salmon spawning on the UC campus and on up Strawberry Creek Canyon. Also at the meeting were the two enthusiastic creek-loving landscape architects working for the Design Section: Gary Mason and Doug Wolfe. The most famous attendee was Berkeley’s Dave Brower, saver of millions of acres of wilderness throughout the US, being his usual impassioned, elegant, poetic self.
It wasn’t going to be a slam-dunk. Some people were convinced their children would drown if creeks were opened—never mind streets with hurtling cars covering 1,500 times as much of the city (thirty-three years out and no one has drowned yet). Others were convinced the open stretch would become a garbage dump. The representative from Public Works kept saying creeks were a high maintenance item.
But the decision was positive for the creek. I think because an alert woman living on Shattuck Avenue stood up to speak: “You know [looking at the man from Public Works] I’ve lived for many years now at Live Oak Park right next to Codornices Creek there, and I’ve seen workers form Public Works trimming the trees and bushes, mowing the grass, picking up litter… But I have never seen them ever doing anything down around the creek.” All eyes turned to the Public Works representative as he cleared his throat and said, “Well I’ve been under the impression creeks are a high maintenance item,” at which point a sly smile spread through the assembled creek fans. The national movement for creek daylighting was off and running. (I wish I’d thought to get her name. If you know her please notify me.)
As far as we know, the opening of Strawberry Creek in 1981 was the first liberation of a once buried urban creek in the US. Now there are hundreds.
So the vote went our way, money was allocated and within a year the deed was done. Things moved as fast then as urbanization in China today. Now we have a happily flowing, nobody drowning, clean and sparkling lovely little creek named after the wild strawberries that used to grow on its banks (maybe still do somewhere) right in the middle of town.
Fourteen long years later Carole activated again and negotiated with all relevant authorities from Berkeley, Albany, the Corps of Engineers, State Fish and Game and I don’t even remember the others, and with a property owner wanting to build a small office building right next to a buried section of Codornices Creek. With support of Urban Creeks Council and Ecocity Builders it all went through to approval. The owner/builder rearranged his plans moving the parking lot off the creek and 20 years ago today, even maybe exactly as I write, we started work. I was in charge of the “construction” project and worked eventually with over 375 other volunteers. Now I go back to do a little maintenance work for fun, watching the seasons and wildlife come and go. This year a red tailed hawk took up residence in a big tree there and the largest steelhead trout I’d seen at about two feet – enormous – chose to end its ocean-going life there in one of the deeper pools.
It’s beautiful. I love it. Come visit. But if you do, write or call up because I am often traveling these days. firstname.lastname@example.org or 510 444-4508. Show up one Sunday between 11:00am and 1:00pm and I’ll give you a tour. But beware: I might put you to work with some clippers and a rake, gloves provided.
Life’s a bit hectic for me right now but I’m sure that in spring with the wildflowers blooming and fruit trees budding we will have a proper birthday party.
by Richard Register
To begin with, a conclusion: China could be the first country to model a “complete” ecocity project. Despite the adoption in bits and pieces of the ecocity model, nowhere have I seen a complete ecocity development project or what we sometimes call an “ecocity fractal” or “integral project” up and running.
I’ve been drawing models of these projects for years. They are places from about the physical footprint of two city blocks (with pedestrian street and plaza) on up in scale that are fully functional, full-on ecological/economic synergistic communities. That is, they have housing, commerce, offices, education, food growing, and rooftop amenities with the best local views of nature and town. They have some product-making, proper response to local sun angles, seasons and weather and are connected with foot, bicycle and rail, powered by renewable energy and replete with best, cleanest building materials. They conserve water while contributing next to zero to air pollution, recycling assiduously and building soils and biodiversity. All that to be three-dimensionally organized and car-free, that is, designed around the human being, not the money, advertizing and lobbying of the auto and oil industries.
How remarkable it would be to finally see a full realization of this. Who will be ready to lead the world and take that last step?
The City 7 highly mixed use project in Changwon, South Korea does get about 75% of the way there. China, too, looks to be in the running for first-ever integral project.
Why am I betting on China? China has the largest population in the world, is urbanizing like crazy and is the only government to be promoting ecocities by name, even using the word ecocity in new cities’ official names. Promising connections are starting with Wang Rusong, friend since 1990, of the Chinese Academy of Science, organizer and host of the Fifth International Ecocity Conference. Wang is the fellow who got my book, “Ecocities,” published in China. Connections are continuing with Fan Bin, President, and my other friends at C&P Architecture in Beijing and Qiu Baoxing, recently retired Vice Minister of Housing and Urban Rural Development, now Vice Chairman, Committee on Population, Resources and Environment, Chinese Peoples Political Consultative Conference and President of the Chinese Society for Urban Studies.
I’ll start there at the end of spring, traveling to the ENN energy company with Ruby Yangxue, my general assistant for most of my travels for talks and consulting in China. With us too is Jai Ma, my translator. Both Ruby and Jai Ma were found for me by C&P Architecture of Beijing. I did a three-hour presentation for ENN Group, including an hour of discussion with chief engineering and executive staff, plus lunch. At lunch I asked ENN Vice Chairman, Gan Zongxue, where he had heard of me such that he’d invite me there to Langfang for the meeting. He’d read my book, “Ecocities.” How’d he find out about that, I asked. He said, sitting on the other side of me, it was from his Chief Information Director, Wei You Shuang. I turned to my right and asked that man. “Well, I was browsing in a book store and found the book. It looked interesting so I bought it,” he said. “That would never happen in the US!” I replied.
ENN produces fuel gasses and liquids from underground coal in-situ, in other words, without removing the coal to above ground. They use the coal to generate energy and provide transportation fuels. When powering various factory processes the company bubbles the “waste” CO2 through water to feed algae that in turn produce biofuels, getting two uses out of the same carbon. The carbon does enter the atmosphere but only after two uses, greatly upping system efficiency. ENN is also moving rapidly into solar electric panels sold in China, Western Europe and the US. With their profits they have moved into creating hotels and a tour cruise line. I suggested they could build small ecocity towns around such hotels. We are following up with some communications but whether we get there or not, we shall see.
With a little help from our friends at Novatek in Utah (inventor and industrialist David Hall) and the Foundation for Sustainability and Innovation in Laguna Beach, California (philanthropist Ron Chilcote), Ecocity Builders hosted Latha Chhetri, Chief Urban Planner for the country of Bhutan. Over three weeks she and I traveled to visit David in Salt Lake City and Provo, to Los Angeles for considerable touring including with a visit to nearly car free Avalon on the island of Catalina. In our Oakland office she gave a full-capacity talk to around 55 of us that inspired all present: Bhutan, home of Gross National Happiness and possible long strides forward for ecocities. At Los Angeles Ecovillage she also presented to a capacity house of fascinated urban ecovillagers and their guests.
In Salt Lake City we paid a visit with David to the enormous conference center of the Church of Later Day Saints, of which he is a member. The horizontal expanse of the 21,000 seat interior with relatively low ceiling and skylight illumination was stunning. More so yet, there was an artificial creek system popping up in ponds and fountains on the roof graced by native plants that ran from upstream to down with plantings to reflect the mountain ecology to the east and the plains to the west. There reflected on the break in the city topography between the steeper slopes and gradual plane of the grass, shrub and desert landscape slopping to the Great Salt Lake. Even more stunning, a waterfall plunged from the roof to a pond that then became a creak running through City Creek Center, a shopping center evoking the original now long-buried creek. In ecocity style, that commercial district featured multi-level linked architecture, bridging over streets and creek (admittedly artificial on a bronze plaque celebrating its construction). Not mixed use, but structurally complex and featuring a very natural looking creek system with native fish included.
At David’s Novatek laboratories and factory he and his chief architect, Ben Jensen, gave us a tour and presentation on their ecocity ideas – urban centers car free and including high production agriculture. They have imagined an enormous number of innovative design twists such as multiple use of the same structures as whole sections of a room lift into a space reserved in the ceiling, which opens up like the doors to the wheel wells of an airplane, while other room divider walls, furniture and appliances descend into the same space. A highlight was to see, sparkling under a low power microscope, the very first industrial diamonds, which were invented by David’s father, Tracy Hall, in 1954. David himself makes industrial diamonds and drilling equipment and has over 300 US patents and a staff of patent lawyers trying to keep up with his (applied) imagination.
Latha got a serious lesson in American car dependent sprawl when we went shopping for a tomato and an avocado to make a nice couple of sandwiches. We wandered suburban Provo, Utah where Novatek’s guest house was located, and spent two and a half hours before achieving our goal. I admit we started about almost 5:00pm on a Sunday evening, but still it took that long? Then we had to remember our way home in the dark.
Then off to Avalon on Catalina Island and an appointment with the chief planner there. Latha and I and the regional guide for our trip, Paula Berlin, friend from Arcosanti, conferred with perhaps the least curious government official I’ve ever met. That is, more or less “conferred.” Over an hour in her office and she never asked a single question of Latha, head of urban planning for a whole country, and much less the fascinating and beautiful Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan, the mouse that roared about happiness over mass production and consumption, perhaps the most consequential concept of the century. She didn’t ask me a question either and perhaps I’m no slouch for ideas and experience some city planners might find a little more than a bore. To avoid embarrassment I won’t mention her name. But, we learned quite a bit about Avalon and Catalina, the only community in all of California that gets to decide its own car policy. Otherwise the state and car interests dictate.
Fortunately our host, Kathleen Carlisle at the Old Turner Inn was full of information and questions that led all over the place, literally. She was a born and raised there, expert in the history of town and island and volunteered to drive us in her electric golf cart around most of the city and out to the city recycling and landfill site a few miles down the coast. Later we traveled to the southeast, to water sources and to our delight, to a natural history museum up the valley west of town. We went to the in-city museum the day before but were disappointed to find only movie star trivia there: Charlie Chaplain and Elvis frequented the place and Natalie Wood apparently fell, jumped or was pushed and drowned in a drunken haze with two men vying for her attentions there. Hmmmm…. How the people, rattle snakes and ironwood trees got there interested me more, with info at the nature museum ready and waiting. The answer: during the Ice Ages (which ones or one I don’t know) when the ocean was hundreds of feet lower, by slithering, maybe walking if there soon enough, and by way of birds and wind carrying seeds.
Absolutely stunning to learn was that Native Americans with no metals and only stone tools could build boats of planks from the local ironwood (which is so hard and dense it sinks, not floats, on water) to make the storied “Twenty-six Miles Across the Sea” (The Four Preps’ song, 1957) to the distant mainland. I could barely see the distant mountains beyond Los Angeles through the salt haze that hovered over the choppy waves. The Native peoples caulked the planks with stiff petroleum globs washed up on the beach, I learned from Kathleen and the museum. The planks must have wracked and twisted with the pitch and roll of heaving swells while the ancient mariners paddled furiously all day and night. How on Earth could they do that? What sort of courage was demanded to trade with the mainlanders? But they did, as archeology tells us from products found from both sides made the trip. Just amazing.
The other observation gets us back to the near total absence of cars on the island and in Avalon. They simply decided the town was so cozy and nice, cars would wreck it and the tourism that employes most of the locals. From the head city planner we learned that if you lived there and put your name on a list that took 12 years to get around to you, maybe you were eccentric enough to be one of the few allowed to drive one of the things. Otherwise there were only a rare few ancients among the golf cart-sized vehicles, plus some service vehicles like small pick ups and some somewhat larger trucks for hauling, and a couple of ancient futuristic looking streamlined buses for tours. I actually didn’t see a single conventional car.
But my biggest impression took me back to Beijing of all places. Just two weeks before I’d been in the narrow streets of the old town and it seemed from just one year to the next the place had gone almost silent, except for human voices. Most of the motor bicycles, small carts and small cars had suddenly gone electric. They were moving slowly, weaving in and out of people walking and bicycling and progressing ever so quietly between the old walls re-missioned as new cafes, small hotels and businesses, residential units, arts galleries and small plazas. I saw a wedding procession for what looked like two young office workers with everyone on flower bedecked bicycles. I recalled the quiet of the Beijing streets because many of the Avalon golf cart-sized vehicles were a nasty, loud pain in the ears, and late at night too. We have a vehicle size lesson to learn from Avalon and Avalon has an electrification lesson to learn from Beijing. And that’s some of my peculiar impressions from that part of the visit.
Why did Latha, chief urban planner for Bhutan, visit on her way back home from a professional enhancement study fellowship for planners at MIT? Because last year I spent almost a month in Bhutan working under Ms. Chhetri and urban designer Tshering Dorji as a semi-independent consultant. During my time in Bhutan I provided, drawings, maps, plans and policies I think might be helpful there, and hence, “there” being powerfully unique with their GNH program (Gross National Happiness). Perhaps there is another opportunity to bolster the ecocity movement around the world. China and Bhutan could hardly be two such different countries, China with 2,000 times as many people rapidly urbanizing and Bhutan with barely as many as San Francisco’s population, a country almost paranoid about growing too fast. To me it’s a fascinating race which country will stride out in the lead.
And so… back to China barely four weeks after the last trip there. Once more C&P Architecture took me on the rounds, and this time the tour was paid for mostly by Urban Environment Design Magazine, better known as UED. I visited four cities and gave talks in all of them. Beijing and Shenzhen I’d been to before. New to me was Changchun, about 175 miles north of North Korea, with unforgiving cold winters, and Xi’an, famous in the central far West for the Terracotta Warriors of the First Emperor. Population is 8 million for Changchun and 6.5 million people for Xi’an.
In Changchun the chief city planner for the City’s Institute for Urban Planning and Design, named Fang Fei, had read not just my “Ecocities (2006)” but also “Ecocity Berkeley (1987).” What a surprise! He gave me and my traveling companions a one hour talk and another hour went by in lively discussion. He tantalized me some saying they have locations where they would like to try several small ecocity suburbs connected to the main city by rail, bicycle and walking paths, inviting me to become involved there. Exciting! We shall see. Interesting tidbit: driving down a random street I noticed a large complex with the sign over the entrance: “Air Force College.” I asked about it. “That’s where the Chinese astronauts who went into orbit studied,” said our local guide.
In Xi’an I did no tourism, missed the low-fired warriors exhumed from their mass grave beneath the farming sod, buried for 2,200 years and uncovered to an astonished world in 1974. But I did visit the offices of the semi-governmental, semi-business firm called China Architecture Design and Research Group. Hard to conceive, my guide there said most of the public buildings in the whole country are designed in the Research Group’s facilities. The hundreds of photos on the wall, almost all of them in the strange architect’s perspective in which the vertical lines, if extended, run parallel rather than converging toward a point high above. You might be familiar with that: buildings with flat roofs create an impression of the closest corner rising to a sharp point. Why this is preferable to just regular photos I don’t know. What I do know is with so many large modern buildings displayed on the hallway walls I was dizzy before I got to the lecture hall for my talk.
My Shenzhen meetings were even more stunning in their possibilities. I learned that China Vanke was the largest builder of residential property in China, at 200 million square meters a year.
Excuse me? 200 million square meters?
That would be approximately 2 billion square feet. The two World Trade Center towers that went down on 9/11/2001 totaled “only” 11 million square feet of developed floor space. Are we seriously talking about this company building 182 times that floor area every year? I was assured that was correct. Double checking on the internet, everyone agreed it is the largest development outfit in China. So I sat down to discuss ecocities with my friends from C&P and UED and Alex Qian, Director of China Vanke’s Urban Research Institute, with a sense of the responsibility to make a few suggestions. About twelve of us, including several from his office dug into why ecocities are important and the many things they can deliver all at once, like a healthy future. This requires follow up! (This I did one week after returning. Now to see what happens next.)
I skipped mentioning my first meeting, in Beijing. Ruby picked me up at the airport, we dropped off my bags at a hotel, then went straight to a meeting with Qiu Baoxing. I started off saying, “I hear you retired from your position as Vice Minister for the Ministry of Housing and Urban Rural Development. What are you up to now?” (I noticed he was still in the same office as last time I went to his work place, in a large national government building.) He smiled and said, oh, he’ll retire in maybe ten years. Meantime, said his new business card, he’s now Vice Chairman of the Committee on Population, Resources and Environment of the CPPCC, the Chinese Peoples Political Consultative Conference, adjunct to the congress of the country, and President of the Chinese Society for Urban Studies. To make a one hour conversation short, he reiterated his pledge to help get my next books in print in China in both Chinese and English, and when I asked him if he had some sort of think tank for policy and design for ecocities in China, he said, well, yes in fact, and its funded by the European Union and called the Europe China Eco-cities Link Project Task Force – “Want to join it? Here, I’ll introduce you to Li Hailong. He’s director.” He leaned over, grabbed the phone and in less than two minutes was introducing us. And now, as said, to make a one-hour conversation short, Mr. Li has just confirmed by e-mail that I’m “International Consultant to the Eco-Cities Planning and Construction Center of the Chinese Society for Urban Studies,” Qiu Baoxing, President.
New Mexico to California, then Colombia… then Korea… then China again…
What to think of all that? Well then I just had to take a vacation to New Mexico to visit my son, Aldie, his wife Miranda and my 9 year old granddaughter, Stella. Following our visit I returned via a cross country road trip back to California where my granddaughter is totally in love with the beach. Ah to relax like that and next, in two days, be off to Colombia, where the adventures go on with a talk at the Universidad Piloto de Colombia in Bogota for the Tenth International Architecture Seminar: Design for Nature, Humanity and Culture. In September, I will depart for two weeks on Jeju Island, South Korea for actual site-specific designs and plans for an ecocity there. Then it’s back to China in October to speak at the Qingdao International Eco-city and Green Roof Conference.
In the meantime I labor to polish up my “good manuscript” for my next book, “World Rescue – an Economics Built on What We Build…” Pretty busy these days. Wish me luck.