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.
By Richard Register, Founder and President
About 90% of the way through Lester Brown’s autobiography, Breaking Ground (W. W. Norton & Company, New York and London, 2013), he confesses, “I’m way beyond my comfort zone writing an autobiography.” A few friends have suggested I write one too. “You’ve lead a very interesting life,” they’ve said. I’ve replied, “Well, I suppose some people would find it interesting…”
But I’ve had a problem expounding on various ideas I’ve had or adopted over the years and decades, always thinking I was missing some of the ambition, even interest, of those “wanting to be writers,” a little too impatient to intensively study and “master the craft.” I always wanted to get down to doing something. Instead of seeing myself as a writer of any sort I have seen myself as the maker of “things,” including those ephemeral sometimes real sometimes ghosts called “ideas.” Some such products of my thinking have been pretty novel, even “firsts” as far as I can tell.
I also see myself as a democratic kind of guy, an impresario of sorts gathering together others I think have inspiring, original or just plain beautiful thoughts and ideas. This is partially because it’s fun and partially because it’s a serious investment in learning something, investing in the future, something of serious help. I do this “gathering together” in the form of setting up meetings, tours, seminars, conferences, once-upon-a-time quite a few just common parties. Sometimes it’s simple as individually posing people for photographs because an aspect of certain faces, bodies, and even clothes reveals something of the worlds they live in, their thoughts, feelings and inner being—our inner being.
So as follows, an overview of some of the ideas I’m most proud of, what I might consider “firsts.”
A Confluence of Independent realizations?
I can’t say it doesn’t frustrate me somewhat that much that I’ve been doing for decades is now just getting the limelight, to the benefit of others just catching on. Yet history is full of these cases of forgotten originators. So it is in a long line of frustrations that I see my ecocity mapping system I represented in the early 1980s is now on the back cover of the great 2009 volume Mannahatta – a Natural History of New York City (by Eric W. Sanderson, Abrams, New York, 2009) with no mention of my work.
The Manahatta map shows low-density automobile dependent development replaced by a pattern of centers-focused development. Most of the paved surface is replaced by farms and what looks like some areas of natural landscapes and water features. The same for my imagery, which appeared in 1987 in my book Ecocity Berkeley, North Atlantic Books, about four years after I started making such maps.
But in addition, my offering illustrated a methodology by which the resulting centers-oriented, open-space-liberating could come about.
- First, look into the past maps of your town and learn something of the natural environment and ecology that is/was present there. Note something of the cultural and development history. We will never get back to the “natural” state or preserve the past like a somehow living fossil, but we can learn a great deal about how life can thrive in this particular geography.
- Then identify the most vital downtowns, district centers and neighborhood centers on the map of you town, city or metropolitan area. In these places increase both density and variety of land use. In other words, imagine placing residences, commercial, office, food availability, schools, etc. close together, mostly in walking and bicycling distances from one another. Radically reduce the need for long distance commuting.
This kind of planning, based on what might be called future-oriented mapping, is antithetical to planning for cars. Automobiles are too large and fast, take up vastly too much space, and cost too much energy, money and time. Ecocity mapping is about planning for us human beings, not cars. Infrastructure needs to be built to our scale, our speed of normal movement and the eternal, fluctuating needs of our cultural creativity and care.
We can proceed with this mapping exercise in a way that respects “human scale,” that celebrates views and sun angels for heating buildings, that provides accessibility to places that feel comfortable, even inspiring. That means accessibility to pleasant environments, native planting and gardens on terraces and rooftops and, in the more dense areas, bridges linking some of those terraces and rooftops with pedestrian bridges.
ILLUSTRATION #1. About here: ECOCITY MAP OF BERKELEY
Several decades later, and ecocity ideas are just becoming popular, with little credit to the “old guard” of my generation’s movement. Still, a genuinely good idea stays a good idea. Perhaps the dynamic of history is simply that a good idea emerges from a context getting ever more obvious. In this case, it’s that sprawl is a disaster and we need to reverse the pattern. But maybe here was the rub and why the project of adopting that mapping for ecocity transformation was postponed 26 years until 2009, Mannahatta’s publishing date – or still 31 years to 2014, to today. When I made the first such centers-identifying maps and proposed a system for slowly withdrawing from scattered habitation, people would immediately look for their house on the map and panic. “You mean you want to demolish my house?!” Or conversely, “You mean you want to put an apartment house and office building on my block?!”
I’d explain the small-scale details were crucial; the process could be by “willing seller deals” and not by eminent domain and condemnation. The process of reshaping would also be expected to take decades and the city and its environs would be constantly improving in both types of development: new open spaces, expanding room for nature, farming, recreation, sports, playgrounds, etc. “Think of the serious problems solved: climate change, biodiversity destruction, local pollution, remoteness of nature and associated alienation and loss of educational potential for children, think about nature and food production… Plus there is real flexibility in ownership and renting in the city: you can always move to another neighborhood or sell your home and buy another one. Almost all of us do move once in a while,” I explained.
But back in the 1980s my first ecocity maps provoked panic. With very rare exception, once the people of Berkeley had found their house on the map, down came the local iron curtain of the imagination and all positive thought evaporated. Never mind that by the time most of the projects came due they would not even be there any more. They’d have moved or be dead and gone from the planet entirely. Maybe such a thought – having to move, to uproot – or just the thought that they might not even be alive any more at some point, compounded the problem. The future thinking maps kindled the imagined personal danger into flaming imminent threat—that is, totally freaked them out.
In any case here we are in 2014 and the idea is as solid and helpful as ever. The author of Manahatta recognized the powerful idea he was illustrating whether he knew anything about my work or not. The idea is as well founded and useful as ever. A good basic idea is, like a diamond, forever. And like a diamond can be easily lost, in the case of ideas, if not communicated and applied. Fortunately it can also be rediscovered.
“Ecocity” aka “Eco-city” and the used almost nowhere “EcoCity”
How about the term “ecocity?” One of my firsts? Maybe… My friends in China say I coined the term and I don’t protest as they go about trying to build some version of the concept. Wang Rusong of the Chinese Academy of Science and Qiu Baoxing Vice Minister of Housing and Urban-Rural Development have joined the ecocity effort, Rusong in 1990 (actually under other names and related activities going back to the early 1980s) and Baoxing in the early 2000s. Then there are Lin Xuefeng, Victor Liu and Tong Yen Ho busy building Tianjin Eco-city. This is an actual city for 350,000 people rapidly a-building about 100 miles east of Beijing on the Bohai Bay, the first in the world with the word ecocity in the official city name.
I entered the scene after the Garden City movement, perhaps the first “Green” thinking among serious urban planners. These discussions of the best term for ecologically healthy cities that I participated in took place in the 1960s when Paolo Soleri coined the term “arcology” for the fusion of architecture and ecology. At the time a number of us aware of his work were discussing his notion of compact pedestrian, single-structure cities. But we thought “arcology” wasn’t quite the right word because we were not talking about just the architecture of buildings but clusters of them, plus streets, rails, open spaces of special design, energy systems to fit, and restoration of associated lands and waterscapes. The term ecocity must certainly have been offered by one of us in such discussions. It very likely was myself. I definitely started using and promoting the word consistently by the mid or late 1970s while fleshing out a good deal more about its meaning.
A word I did make up for sure was “ecotropolis.” I even know exactly when and where: on the second day of the 9th International Ecocity Conference on (August 23, 2011) in Montreal, Canada walking along the second floor north corridor of the Palais des Congres, the big civic conference center there. I was thinking about the fact that in many parts of the world fairly closely scattered towns and cities grew outward with the increase of population – but mostly because of car-induced sprawl – until they all grew together and merged into a whole urban agglomeration called a metropolis, megalopolis or metropolitan area. The infrastructure replacing this sprawl should have a name too. Why not ecotropolis?
My adaptations and general catch up
I represent a number of ideas I didn’t make up. Bridges between buildings, for example. Downtown San Francisco has a whole district of 16 blocks of housing, offices, shops and even three large rooftop parks linked by bridges at the third and fourth story level over the streets. It’s called Embarcadero Center and these days taken quite for granted. It should be considered a powerful and early ecocity manifestation.
Some urban features I highlight for something in them of special “ecocity” meaning or purpose, such as exterior glass elevators for the exciting cheap thrills of sweeping up and down as if flying over your city as well as for the convenience of vertical transportation. Sometimes I try out names for such features, too. Probably my favorite is the rare feature I call a “keyhole plaza” or “view plaza.” Imagine your typical plaza but instead of the open “hard space” for people to gather being surrounded exclusively by buildings, there is an opening to a view to a special natural or perhaps agricultural feature nearby. That is, a corner or a side of the plaza is missing to provide an opening to such a view. Don’t build anything in the way of this view. The cultural product in the form of surrounding buildings frames a view to, say, a mountain, or perhaps a river, or looks up a beautiful coastline. You could even imagine a keyhole plaza in the flat relentless plains of Kansas or steppes of Russia or savannas. In these cases horizontal lines in the view-surrounding buildings designed to emphasize the character of the infinite horizon so strong as the natural environment there.
I called this a “keyhole plaza” for many years. I was thinking of the plan of such a plaza viewed from above looking something like the hole for the key shaft in the old style lock. Later I started using the more generic term for what it provides – a “view” plaza.
ILLUSTRATION # 2. KEYHOLE PLAZA
Jackson Square in New Orleans is such a plaza. Unfortunately it lost its view to the Mississippi River as the silt and the river rose up over the years due to sand and mud deposition. This has forced the raising of an artificial levee to protect the whole city. The levee now presents a blank slope instead of a river view to Jackson Square.
San Marcos Plaza in Venice, Italy is such a plaza too, though its view focuses more on buildings across the lagoon than the lagoon itself or the open Adriatic Sea. Piran, Slovenia too, though the notch in the wall of buildings, opens to a view of the Adriatic. The opening should probably be quite a bit wider for the effect to be really felt.
Among the ideas that certainly are not mine but ones that facilitate ecocity progress, ideas I’ve been advocating for decades, are ones such as creating pedestrian and bicycle streets and paths, making and expanding car-free areas, simply making mixed use places even more “mixed use” and “balanced” in terms of complementary facilities close together and investing in and making these places more popular so that people can enjoy their “vitality centers” more. This is exactly what was portrayed in our prescriptive ecocity mapping since the early 1980s.
Of course waterway, shoreline and ridgeline preservation and restoration fits too and gradually over the decades their acceptance is expanding. My friend Sylvia McLaughlin, 97 years old, still emeritus on our Ecocity Builders’ Board of Directors, saved the Bay with her two associates, Kay Kerr and Esther Gulich founding the Save San Francisco Bay Association in 1960 – which not only saved the 85% of the bay that was in the planning pipeline for fill and development, but established rules for the entire state that provided shoreline access for the public as well as preservation of waterways and shorelines – and proved a model for the country and whole world after.
Solar, wind and other renewables fit here as the energy base for the energy conserving ecocity, providing the supply for the reduced demand of the redesigned and rebuilt city that could be an ecocity or ecotropolis. My interest in solar goes back to Farrington Daniels who wrote a book published in 1962 entitled The Direct Use of the Sun’s Energy. Solar energy is clean and so ample as to constitute 99.97% of all energy arriving daily in the film of life on Earth called the biosphere. Plus, in geologic time, solar energy, converted by the chlorophyll of plants, provides the planet’s fossil fuels. For direct application, sunshine needs some concentration to be utilized for most human purposes other than simply “passively” warming our constructed environments of buildings and clusters thereof. Daniels – plus nature herself – seemed to make immaculate good sense so I looked for, found and wrote about early solar energy pioneers for the Los Angeles Times Sunday magazine getting my early article on the subject published in the magazine, then known as West Magazine, September 27, 1972. Solar fits beautifully with ecocity design.
Back to some “originals”
One idea of mine that I was promoting, as early as 1976 in Berkeley, has just in the last year seen application in San Bernardino, California and Tampa, Florida: the planting of “fruit parks” in public places. The Alliance for Community Trees reports just this year (in the April 12, 2014 issue of their internet newsletter) on these initiatives in which fruit trees are being planted – at last! – in public parks. My original effort was designed to appropriate some of the $100,000 (more like $400,000 today according to Oregon State University’s inflation conversion factors chart) allocated to my neighborhood in West Berkeley at the time in Block Grant funding for purposes the neighborhoods themselves would decide upon. Our idea was to have an urban orchardist help plant trees in front of people’s houses and in small portions of parks in the neighborhood, involving the interested neighbors in planting, pruning, harvesting, canning and otherwise preparing the produce. The proposal supported the purchase of trees and hiring of an orchardist/coordinator for the program for one year of a pilot project. The problem was that the administrator of the grant working for the City told us there was no money for the orchardist/coordinator – sorry. Capital projects only. I discovered a year after the decision was made for spending the money that the City’s administrator of the grant was either mistaken or actually lying to keep things simple.
In the meantime what did get funded? New asphalt for a few blocks of one of the streets. But now maybe people are realizing that the city trims and cares for trees all over town anyway. Why not a systematic approach to tree food production involving those who might be interested? You will note also that the ecocity mapping approach helps coordinate and arrange not only new development and open space in best places but gives order and pattern to projects such as expanding parks and community gardens as part of an overall sensible system shaping a better city.
ILLUSTRATION #3. FREEWAY UNDER ORCHARD
Another idea. Between centers as defined in the ecocity mapping exercise and in special other places: bury highways. Already railroads and highway burrow through mountains – the Alps and some other mountain ranges are riddled with tunnels – and subway systems in cities around the world keep the most intense infrastructure of the transportation system out of the way of surface movement while radically reducing congestion, pollution and noise. Around 1983 I drew up, pretty much as a flight of fancy, an image of a freeway under an orchard, which was printed in my book Ecocity Berkeley – Building Cities for a Healthy Future in 1987. I’ll include this picture as one of this article’s illustrations. Then on a trip to Europe <the following year> that included Vienna I was shocked and delighted to see that is exactly what the Viennese did along two and a half miles of the Danube, down to an almost identical design of ventilations boxes about eight feet high. They had built what I had imagined, a wall to keep people from accidently falling into the tunnel. The way the tunnel was built was to simply bridge over the freeway with a roof and create a park on top. I’ll include another picture here too, coincidentally from the April 24, San Francisco Chronicle – that is exactly what is planned for replacing what used to be Doyle Drive in the city’s Presidio district just south and east of the Golden Gate Bridge.
ILLUSTRATION #4. DOYLE DR. PUT UNDERGROUND
Another idea: why not elevate bicycle paths? Unlike elevated freeways and the elevated rail lines much more common and noisy in the past but still in frequent use and noisy enough to bother most people anywhere with in a few blocks, elevated cycle ways would be narrow, quite – approaching completely silent – and allow much more light to pass around and down to the ground. I drew such imagery – another picture featured here – in the early 1980s, also in Ecocity Berkeley, which only did I discover in Wikipedia two years ago, was preceded by about 85 years by the real thing: the California Cycleway. That was an elevated wooden bicycle path that set out from downtown Pasadena toward downtown Los Angeles. It was opened in the unfortunate year of 1900, 40 years before the opening of the country’s first freeway, the Pasadena Freeway, that took almost exactly the same route between town centers. “Unfortunate” I say because the automobile was just then beginning to come on strong. The California Cycleway only made it about one third of the way from Pasadena toward its southwest destination. People were switching to cars so fast and in general pushing cyclists around so obnoxiously that cycling began to experience a rapid decline. The cycleway was only open for a few months, then closed.
ILLUSTRATION #5. ELEVATE CYCLE WAY BY RR
A piece of “happy face” history
An idea still earlier and even more remote from ecocities – and this one seems so unlikely I very seldom even mention it, is this: the happy face, alias smiley face. That was spring of 1965. Around 1968 someone told me someone else came up with that now universal symbol of happiness in 1963, an advertising agency man from Seattle. He didn’t make it into Wikipedia, but then neither did I. So there is some ambiguity. But an interesting story traces at least my “creative process.” It was definitely original in my experience. The story according to Wikipedia is…
1953 the movie “Lili” featured advertisements utilizing “happy faces” that shows up on the advertising poster for “Lili.”
1958 the movie “Gigi” – exact same story.
1962 New York radio Station WMCA produced a sweatshirt with the happy face with their current slogan underneath: “WMCA good guys”. This also is pictured in Wikipedia.
1963 or 1964 depending on sources, commercial artist Harvey Ball created the black on yellow version with corners on the mouth for State Mutual Life Insurance, again as a commercial promotion. Paid $45 – equal to $340 in today’s dollars. Unlike the others above and mine below, this happy face was standardized in black on yellow with corners of the mouth added.
1965 – my part of the story isn’t featured there.
1969 and the fad goes mainstream with the grinning yellow one on a Time Magazine cover I remember but can’t find on the Internet.
1972 I find myself in Stockholm around midnight during the first of the United Nations Environment conferences – I’m out in the cold – staring at a stylish downtown window displaying floor mats, toilet seat covers, wall paper, lamp shades, plates, cups, saucers table cloths and clothing all with smiley faces, all in black on yellow.
1972 a little later, a journalist at the Detroit Free Press decides to do some research and discovers I’m in there with an interesting thread in the tapestry, writes the only story I know – outside of Los Angeles where I was actively promoting No War Toys – about that follows – that dug into my part in that particular history. About that shortly.
1980 a popular bumper sticker appeared with an exact replication of my first and most utilized design – I’ll provide a photo here for you to compare with one of my early buttons.
ILLUSTRATION #6. BUTTON AND BUMPER STICKER
OK, now my story… The Vietnam War (actually the American War in Vietnam) was raging and growing rapidly in 1965 when I decided there was something unhealthy about giving toy weapons to young boys to encourage them to pretend to kill one another … for fun. What’s that all about?! Could it be the first, the indirect and most subtle first start for conditioning society to accept and glorify war, making it seem heroic, exciting, natural and even inevitable – might as well give up on peace and not give it a chance. I decided to cultivate the debate and started my first non-profit organization and called it No War Toys. Four <For> about six years it was mostly what I was up to.
Almost from the very beginning in the spring of 1965 I decided I needed a logo – push “a brand” as is said by the “in” PR theorists and persuasion spinners these days. But what to use for such a symbol? Methodically I pored over possibilities. I ruled out geometric shapes like stars, hexagons, silhouettes of plants, animals and tools and boring collections of letters. NWT would be a loser. Why not a face drawn by children quite early, regularly, naturally and pretty much universally? Just look around homes, nursery schools and kindergartens and there it was: among the first and happiest of creative activities undertaken by children. Creative and happy at the same time – great! I thought. The only problem was, from my point of view and my effort to find a simple and strong graphic <was this>: was the nose best represented by one dot for the prominence or two dots for the dark punctuating nostrils? Why not just dispense with the nose altogether? That was the same stroke – maybe a little short – of genius I shared with my unknown predecessor publicists for “Lili,” “Gigi,” Station WMCA and so on. The kids all used a dot so maybe us adults were a little off, but it worked and it spread.
First I’d need a newsletter to get the No War Toys ideas confronted directly in relation to propaganda for war and looking into the deeper possible functions of both the creative and destructive, symbolism and actual habit-inducing mental and physical action in children’s play. Next the lapel buttons, balloons and T-shirts. The idea seemed simple enough and off I went to the balloon company to order a couple thousand, white paper and sharp black making pen in hand.
My shock was that it was so hard to draw an intelligent looking happy face. I must have drawn between 30 and 50 versions before one said to me, “I’m smart, happy, competent and confident, without the slightest snide or condescending nuances of glance or look of stupidity or blandness.” It amazed me how many expressions could come through with a drawing so simple. But I eventually liked one of the images and used it for the next six or seven years – on all sorts of colors, not just yellow. I also encouraged children coming to our tree house-building projects in back yards and giant sandcastle (actually sand city) building projects on beaches to bring their own versions of happy faces on flags and banners, and in classrooms and at fairs and festivals, to draw any version they liked.
Now I look back and remember the commercial aspects of the other promotions, but it should also be said I used the happy face in a similar way myself: commercial with a cause, you might say. Sales of the buttons, T-shirts and bumper stickers provided most of the money for all my “activist” efforts in the years of my peace movement contribution. At the height, there were approximately 30 “offices,” meaning kitchen and dining room tables around the country, distribution centers for our newsletter and paraphernalia, and for meetings planning demonstrations tacked on to larger peace demonstrations, picketing toy stores, appearances on television, at PTA meeting and the like. My pride was that the “smiley face” or “happy face” might have helped some in deepening thought about war propaganda and the perhaps much more subtle differences between creative and destructive “pre-tend.” Happily it represented for me also creativity.
By the way, I was never for deceiving children that war has not happened and continues, if hopefully less so into the future; some among my friends considering themselves liberals thought I was cultivating deception. To them I said their boys should play war realistically. Maybe they will have to defend their country some day but they shouldn’t think war is fun. The next morning when little Howard wants to play with Sammy, “Sorry, you can’t seem him anymore. Remember? You killed him playing war yesterday.” “But that was just play.” “That’s right but for it to be a bit more truthful, you need to understand what it’s really like. We are going to play Veterans Administration Hospital now…” “But I don’t want to play hospital. I want to pretend to kill my friends.” “Sorry. Today we pretend to lie in bed and try to recover, realizing we won’t… ever.”
Why mention all this about firsts?
For three reasons. First to give some thought to the process by which new ideas or a least new syntheses of older ideas come about. Perhaps a need exists – such as making less damaging, or even actively healthy, cities. Or, second, perhaps it is simply a pleasure like playing, done for self-satisfaction and/or entertainment, for self, friends and children, worthy ends in themselves. At the very least, understanding the dynamics around “firsts” is to understand a little more about the mysteries of creativity and to further the notion that just maybe creativity can be cultivated – to the betterment of practically all aspects of life.
The third reason, perhaps hoping for more than likely satisfied, is that others will recognize such creative capacity and reward it some, thinking the chances of future invention and progress of some sort might in the future materialize. That is, creative people tend to come up with more creative ideas and products as time goes on. Some burn out but a lot keep going. We should help them. The self-serving sub-text here is that there should be more support for people like me! I could get a lot more good projects accomplished with a little of that.
Regarding the first reason, some techniques for cultivating creativity are almost mechanical and not so inspired and exclusively the property of “gifted” people as some creative people would claim – in an effort to romanticize or cast in magical glow what they do to facilitate, they hope, their own legend as special people. And if it is true that there are ways to encourage creativity, as I thought likely then in my happy face days, promoting war toys was at the very least a big waste of time that could be much better used developing the opposite of destructivity, namely creativity. Some creativity is innate no doubt, but I also believed – and still do – that a fair capacity for creativity can be actually taught.
These mechanical approaches to creative action include simply looking at things from another perspective: what happens when we look at something upside down? Or backwards? Or in reverse chronological order? Do we see something new and interesting appearing? What if we methodically search for a basic principle that might be hidden in something we are looking at that appears ordinary at first glance but might mean something else just under the surface? Looking at the everyday map of a metropolitan area is something like that, revealing to the mind that looks beyond the evident smudge of gray and sees the centers of vitality that could become the ecotropolis of the future, a cluster of ecocities, ecotowns, ecovillage and enfolding farms and natural landscapes.
Another technique of methodical application is to simply not fear embarrassment, people trying to make fun of you, to blame you for trying something strange and different. Think that they should be embarrassed, not you. Probably the most entertaining case of this in my experience goes back to the days when I was making sculpture. At the time I was busy enjoying the ever entertaining and lively world of the artist, in my case, in Venice, California most of that time. But that work didn’t bring in enough money to survive so I had a one day a week job making silver and gold peace symbol necklace pendants and pins for a Los Angeles Jeweler capitalizing on the anti-Vietnam War sentiment of the time. Not to make him sound greedy – he was also adamantly against the war and a Quaker – but more basically a compassionate thinking man. He’d asked me permission to make happy face jewelry since in those days in the peace movement I was, as the kids would say, the happy face man. I saved up and bought a gold one that I made – the gold belonged originally to the jeweler – and pinned it on my sweater. But when low on money once, I unfortunately sold it.
The job entailed holding a rough cast peace symbol or happy face to a coarse grinding wheel to flatten the surface and smooth the outside edge, then progress on to a fine grinding wheel then polish on a spinning cloth buffer wheel. The metal object would vibrate with a hard tingling feel, heat up almost burning the fingers. Then I’d plunge the amulet, pin or ring into cold water to cool it down and proceed to the next step until a descent looking shiny item was produced.
One morning I was taking a shower in my apartment thinking about making the metal adornments, adjusting the water temperature, thinking of the peace symbols heating, then cooling, vibrating from the grinding wheel, my fingers getting hot, drying out some then plunging into water to get cold and wet again, over and over. I thought, “Why don’t people make sculptures to explore that?” meaning the full range of what we can feel with the several tactile senses. This struck me as very interesting indeed. Almost immediately (after toweling down and drying out) I set to work buying up and assembling in various arrangements vibrators, heaters, coolers and freezers, foggers and misters, foam rubber, fur, velvet and corduroy and I was off and running making tactile sculpture while part of that time overlapping with my No War Toys work.
ILLUSTRATION #7 – A TACTILE SCULPTURE BY RR
But then what was entertaining about this somewhat long story? And what was revealing about the creative process – and the process of subverting it?
I was at yet another more or less cocktail party with loads of artist types, maybe a few real ones, plus ordinary mortals, as the artists might see it, and a man says in the usual way, “…and what do you do?” So I said, “I make tactile sculptures.” He said, “What do you mean?” I explained I built things to be felt with your hands, sometimes with your whole body as when a moist cool breeze descends from an overhead fogger and gentle fan, something like an on coming rain storm. If a thunderstorm, you might throw in a negative ion generator (like a friend of mine was making a living selling about then).
He scrunched his brow together and said, “You can’t do that.” I said, “Why not?” He looked almost angry. “You can’t do that. I’ve never heard of anything like that.” “Well all I can say is that’s what I do” and decided to talk to someone else.
Conclusion, if any
Another methodical creative process is just sticking with it. Sticking with it and trying out variations on its theme long enough to see if something unpredictable comes out the far end of all that repletion. Often it does and not only does an end product of quite curious and sometime helpful nature appear, but usually the basic reason or principle behind the process becomes evident too, guiding kindred such processes into the future. Think of the first person to whip up some whip cream, maybe saying to herself, “if I just keep doing this maybe there will be ever more and more bubbles and smaller ones until something really different appears,” or maybe she just doggedly whipped on for ornery refusal to quit once started. Water – it wouldn’t have worked and eventually the experiment would end in just a little information. But whipped cream? OK! A discovery.
In fact, this is one of the tried and true approaches to scientific discovery and its application often thus transforms a vague “theme” into a very powerful and dependable “principle.” One could say sticking with the ecocity venture long enough has revealed – even guaranteed – that the core ideas do in fact reveal themselves as basic principles and produce some pretty amazing and healthy results including some designs guaranteed to satisfy both human beings and the welfare of the planet.
One such principle revealed through relentless focus on the ecocity subject – remember that it took me almost 30 years from ecocity to ecotropolis – is the pattern within for regions larger than mere cities. Another basic principle is the essential three-dimensionality of the built habitat dramatically identified by Paolo Soleri, as compared to two-dimensional sprawl, the principle also known in my world as the “anatomy analogy” as so many things in city arrangement compare very educationally “like” three-dimensional the organization of complex living organisms, and if that concludes or perhaps better yet opens up my line of reasoning here, that is, as in many other considerations in ecocity design – and life itself – up to you.
Infinite growth is impossible
Our newsletter readers all know that infinite growth in a limited environment is impossible so I’ll mention here, without trying to prove the case, an interesting fact: life depends on energy, 99.97% of which arrives in the thin zone of life on Earth from the sun. Only .025% oozes up from the crust as geothermal energy and the thin slice of .005% comes from tidal energy, cosmic rays, meteor friction with the air and most interestingly I think, residual heat from the originally birth of the planet in accumulating bombardments from asteroids, comets and space dust.
Life, of course, also depends on climate, local or regional soils and/or waters and the interaction between living organisms. Carrying capacity in the case of human presence on Earth has components that multiply one another in a manner similar to that identified by Paul Ehrlich in his famous formula: I = PAT, meaning Impact (on the environment and everything in it) is equal to Population multiplied times Affluence (or consumption) times particular Technology. One technology may be almost totally benign, solar energy for example, and another definitely risky, such as nuclear with its unsolved waste problems and necessity for massive insurance and investment subsidies. READ MORE
Brief Note from Richard leaving China
I’m on my way back from China reflecting on some of the best opportunities and heaviest responsibilities I’ve gotten myself into since starting ecocity work almost 50 years ago. I first gave a plenary talk at the Tenth International Green Building and Technology Conference and Expo in Beijing. Then I spoke to university audiences at Tsinghua University in Beijing, Tongji University, Shanghai; Tianjin University in Tianjin and Southeast University in Nanjing. How my hosts at C&P Architecture in Beijing, especially Mr. Bin Fan, President of C&P, and Ruby Yangxue, my translator, guide and general assistant, pulled it all together is quite amazing—and at very short notice too.
The story is long and my space here short, but two photos and two short observations, one something of a confession, are in order.
Confessions first, so, as usual with confessions, I can then move on more relaxed.
In my slide presentations I frequently feature images of the two big towers in Shanghai. I took the picture six years. I make the comment that super tall buildings are linear development. They are not integrated into the community in the three-dimensional arrangement of complex living organisms obeying the rule of internal and external “access by proximity.” One has to be relatively close to things in the environment (external), both natural and built, to have easy, efficient, healthy access to the benefits of the environment. So too for the organism itself (internally). An organisms internal functions work best with organs close together in a 3-D, not flat (2-D) or linear (1-D), arrangement. READ MORE