Richard Register’s Blog

Democratic by Design – new book with rich diversity of democratic approaches

Tina Huang : March 30, 2016 8:06 pm : Richard's blog :


By Richard Register

In the perfect world of politics and economics rolling along, direct and official accountability to the public, through free speech, open deliberation and voting (decision making) and taxing and spending (getting real about doing something) would be mainly through government and the law-making practice. The idea is to have open debate and a beautifully informed public. Everything is then supposed to work out nicely for “the People” as they like it. In people-initiated government-independent work, generally meaning business, sometimes non-profit organizations, just to keep the bad actors in line with a little bit of regulation for the common good… and all’s well that continues harmoniously.


  Gabriel Metcalf, from the book jacket

When I went to Norway for the first time, in 1988, I said to my host and friend there, Kirsten Kolstad, “I’d like to visit some environmental organizations; where can we find some?” She looked at me a bit puzzled. “I think we have a Greenpeace here, somewhere… You know we don’t really have environmental organizations. If you want to make a difference you study, get competent then work for the government. They can actually get a lot done.” The subtext was this: government is the institution set up to deliver the common good, including the good of plants, animals, bioregion, planet. “Why do you even need environmental organizations?” she added. Answering herself she added, “Because your government doesn’t do the work it should.” Well that wasn’t completely true but she had a point, which is not to say they are perfect in Norway either with most of their wealth based on North Sea oil, but I’m getting ahead of myself or off to one side…

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His book cover

I’d surmise the best of government requires this ideal of a high degree of democracy – participation and empowerment in deliberations and decision- making – by the public.

The only problem is, as with the assumptions of mainstream economic theory that the consumers all have 1.) accurate and extensive information and 2.) are thoroughly rational and 3.) are also thoroughly self-centered, which maybe exists on a planet near Alpha Centauri, with life here on Earth, it’s a bit more complex.

Unfortunately a few bumps occur along the road to make perfection impossible. So we fumble forward in what some people call politics: the art of the possible. Most of us individuals, and institutions too, want just a little more, and the greedy among us want a whole lot more. We are not all that reasonable and democratic. And some are even more focused on benefits for others than for themselves becoming subservient to what others think of them, to family, nation, religion, fanatic group and so on. Then there are various levels of deception providing a less than unbiased information base, from little white lies of gross exaggeration as in the advertising industry to brazen (strategic they rationalize) deceit by many politicians performing up front before us all, and by the genuine sociopaths lurking under the rocks ready to pounce out and steal or kill.

So here’s how it really works

Gabriel Metcalf’s new book, Democratic by Design – How Carsharing, Co-ops, and Community Land Trusts Are Reinventing America, addresses all this eyeball to eyeball, mano a mano, and does so by looking at who steps in with the creative alternative called the new institution that strives to solve some problems along the bumpy way.

Alternative to what? Government and the big businesses and even the big non-profits – or maybe just the bad habits of the masses. Maybe even a lot of smaller institutions in their vast number aren’t working that well – we need alternatives to those too. The success of the new institutions paradoxically has to do with how large and/or how pervasive their offspring become, including small ones. The criteria: how influential on everyone’s lives the alternative institution becomes, how broad the level of cultural acceptance, all the way down to the level of normal daily habits, some quite healthy, some pretty bad, even dangerous. We can all think of some of both types. Thus not only is there the issue of cultural acceptance but also that culture might be going wrong in some way, say, by abusing one social group or another or destroying the climate balance or accepting that war will go on and on forever and ever.

The particular institution Gabriel chose to create, with a lot of help from a few friends and work pals, was a car-sharing scheme that turned into one of the world’s pioneering leaders in the form they called City CarShare out of San Francisco.

I got off to a good/bad start with this magnetically friendly and obviously brilliant guy, Gabriel, way back when he was very early in his ruminating about the idea: set up a fleet of cars owned by a non-profit so that city folks could rent cars for trips around town on a very convenient basis. This would, if successful and broadly implemented, vastly reduce the number of cars inflating the city with asphalt parking lots and paved surfaces for driving and make possible not creating several stories of concrete and steel parking inside most of the buildings while liberating massive moneys for better uses and radically reducing fuel dependence and the disasters of burning the stuff which afflicts atmosphere and climate.

:Veggie car watering Best.TIF

My vegetable garden car, 1979, a 360 horsepower GTO. You can tell even way back then I was a critic of cars, fan of organic farms.

More fundamentally, moving away from cars is generally moving away from sprawl, and vice versa. And, if the smaller suburban centers of a region like the San Francisco Bay Area got with “carsharing” in a big way too, sprawl could be eventually etched away and replaced with compact cities and modest sized towns. But we’d have to understand what we were doing and make zoning changes to fit: more mixed uses, centers oriented development and gradually removing car-dependent development while shifting to rental, fewer and eventually entirely car free areas tending to whole cities, towns and villages. Cars? The rare few for connecting between cities where rails and bicycling, even horses, for one reason or another won’t work. These days I think of this as a kind of co-shifting – land use and transportation – toward low energy transport and high functioning physical community infrastructure. It would be the pedestrian ecotropolis replacing scattered, enormously destructive car accommodating and promoting sprawl. With transport and city form changing roughly together, the number of cars needed could be radically reduced over reasonable time. The idea of carsharing looked like it might be a promising part of a transition strategy toward thorough-going ecocities. I liked the mission he had in mind.

Gabriel’s approach was to create an institution to create positive change in society. Alternative institutions could be ones to change habits (stop smoking, for example), eliminate injustices somewhere, protect nature, advance (hopefully good) local and national policies, promote renewable energy, actually build an alternative by designing better bicycle networks and getting them built, same for ecocities, and so on. His launch point and one of his major case subjects in Democracy by Design was in a real organization aspiring to change the way we get around and at the same time, change the basic layout and texture of our cities, starting in San Francisco and attempting to change things everywhere possible, which is pretty much everywhere people gather together in building communities from city to village scale. If alternative institutions don’t effect the mainstream then the only success they could be said to have would be a lesson of some sort: they were too early – try later – or maybe what not to do. They basically fail by either never getting big or never influencing what is big in its own right or big in the sense of gaining broad acceptance in society, maybe by way of numerous small copycats. So Gabriel’s intent was big from the start. He wanted to change the whole structure of cities, which was why we launched our conversation.

I don’t remember who initiated our get-togethers, but I had recently written a book called Ecocity Berkeley – Building Cities for a Better Future and he was studying all sorts of issues related to city planning and transportations systems. My favorite place to meet was at the pizza beer pub in downtown Berkeley called Jupiter. (“Why did you name it Jupiter?” I asked the owner once. “Because we were thinking of something really big and I thought, Hey! Jupiter’s big!”) Big was Gabriel’s ambition too, and of course mine, to change cities everywhere from an ecological disaster phenomenon to a fabulously successful human-nature partnership. Insanely big? Maybe, but Gabriel’s success was, if not to reshape cities everywhere, to help significantly in that direction. So we were nicely aligned, as the planets sometimes are.

That was the good start, plus we had a lot of fun munching, swilling, fantasizing and hopefully laying out some thoughts that, if connected well to work and a goal, would amount to us doing some planning.

The bad, or at least uncomfortable part, was my initial almost reflexive, and I thought very natural reaction when he described his idea of how people would share cars, renting them through a non-profit he had in mind. It would be a transition strategy to affect the form and function of the whole city. So with no laborious analysis behind what I was hearing for the first time I said something like, “Well how do you know people, when they switched to rental cars, would already be drivers? Maybe a lot of them would be people who don’t drive yet, and once they start getting used to driving they’d eventually buy their own car. How do you know those already car-free guys would be outnumbered by those who already have cars and would end up driving less or eventually not at all?” It seemed to me it could work in either direction.

Gabriel was visibly agitated by my thought, as if I’d thrown my nice iced beer on him and his pizza. But I knew from lots of other topics in our conversations he had the best of intentions. In fact, he probably had best of information too since so many more drive in the US than just walk, and unlike today, there was no renaissance of people hankering for the options and free airs of the city and not many attracted to car-free living. It would seem his notion made a lot of good sense. There was simply a much larger body of driver/owners out there than there were walkers to be converted to car ownership. He was probably as educated on his point as I was likely off point in my rejoinder.

How alternative institutions work

Early in his book Gabriel says, “The American Revolution illustrates some of the key components of alternative institutions as a strategy.” He elaborates, “First, it succeeded at least partially because before the [Revolutionary] war began, the people living in the colonies had created alternative institutions of self-government that made the British Government superfluous.”

The institutions in question “ranged from early corporate enterprises organized for the purpose of trade to idealistic religious communities. What emerged over time was a de facto system of self-governance camouflaged by formal subservience to the British crown.”

The town meetings were where the shoe or horseshoe met the road, and town meetings would appoint representatives to other de facto institutions, which were the colonies’ legislatures, which even levied taxes, built roads and occasionally mustered militia – I’d guess to fight restive Native Americans and be ready for the French. The town meetings and hence the colonial legislatures were not perfect, leaving out slaves, Indians, women and men without real estate or business properties. But it was the best one could do at the time and a long step up and away from the distant small isles across the stormy North Atlantic where the governing elite were telling a few million people, by necessity very personally and collectively self-reliant, what to do.

The already existing institutions in the colonies cut a dramatic contrast with France and their revolution. Gabriel quotes Hannah Arendt from her book On Revolution on that score: “The great and fateful misfortune of the French Revolution was that none of the constituent assemblies could command enough authority to lay down the law of the land; the reproach rightly leveled against them was always the same: they lacked the power to constitute by definition: they themselves were unconstitutional.” She continues, “Conversely the great good fortune of the American Revolution was that the people of the colonies, prior to their conflict with England, were organized in self-governing bodies.” Institutions created by people to meet their needs can be powerful and profoundly change society.

Pan right and up to today, and some of the alternative institutions are environmental groups, transit and bicycle advocates’ organizations, city planning advocacy groups like Ecocity Builders, coops, land trusts, early unions, farmers’ associations, community land trusts, mission-driven investment funds and so forth. He covers all of these and more, reminding me a little of Howard Zinn’s approach in A People’s History of the United States. Gabriel’s is more like An Institution’s History of the United States, much briefer but embracing a wider political/economic viewpoint.

In what Gabriel Metcalf calls a “theory of piecemeal change,” he says, “The central idea of the alternative institution strategy is that we should focus on creating elements of a better society today, one institution at a time. This approach means we do not have to convince people of a particular critique of society’s ills or have the same view of what a better society would look like. We simply have to find people who agree with us about better ways to achieve specific ends.” He calls this a “strategy of minimum consensus.”

Though contrasting the US and the French alternative institutions prior to their revolutions does have an element of changing physical institutions most of those concerned could relate to, they also had strong elements of dealing with “views of what a better society would look like.” Many of the particular institutions he examines for us, dear readers, are relatively free of political undertones, such as those in the sustainable food movement as well as something as physical in impacts as carsharing institutions, and for that matter, again to say, building ecocities. Those three have so many benefits for both people and nature they are in fact something of good cases in point for his theory.

But let’s think a little about the non-government institutions, which include business with its relatively strict adherence to the profit motive – the profit reality or you go broke and disappear – and the non-profit institutions that enunciate a set of values to be furthered by doing something very particular. These institutions can include carsharing groups to be organized and promoted into existence, environmental groups seeking policies defending “nature,” others feeding the hungry left behind by the government and business sectors, religions, universities both private and public, experimental towns including Garden Cities and much of the earlier mentioned list above. We could even include government institutions when they first come into existence when the established institutions left a good goal unattended. For example, redevelopment agencies when they first started to provide housing. And you can yourself likely name others that were alternative once upon a time or still are. And by the way, have you noticed that when people talk about alternative transportation they mean everything but cars? They are dancing around avoiding outright car-blame because it is not yet the cool thing to do. With about 1 in 6 of us in the United States employed in the auto-related, car, suburb and highway building, fueling, repairing, insuring, policy-writing, policing and defending resources, especially fuel resources institutions – and don’t forget hospitals and mortuaries and you have to include car rental institutions, even taxis – you can see why there is a reluctance to identify the elephant in the room. (Though some of us think planning a full employment transition would create even more jobs – but that’s another story and too much for this article.)

A couple dozen pages into his book, Democracy by Design – great title by the way – I began to realize Gabriel was talking directly to me. I’ve created, and very intentionally, several institutions though initially I didn’t think of them in that “institutional” language of his. The first was No War Toys, started in 1965 which quickly became a group of a few dozen people around the US bringing attention to the question: does giving war toys to little boys cultivate an atmosphere conducive to war-like values; does it lie to the children encouraging them to think war is exciting and heroic rather than drudgery and a kind of collective psychopathic controlled out of control mayhem? That’s a tale for another telling too.

My second institution was called World Community Events started in 1970. The idea emerging from a very commercial Christmas season conversation about the fact that there seemed to be no holiday for all of us, but should be, a kind of Earth Day/Peace Day combo. That one I even managed to gather a board of directors and incorporate. I managed to stage about a dozen medium sized events and seed a few around the country but they had no staying power of their own. So I went on to found two alternative institutions, which I didn’t think of by that term, to promote ecocities. And here I am today reporting on what Gabriel refreshes and clarifies for much of the organized effort of my life – and I can tell you he is right on! The exercise he takes us through in his examination of these groups is definitely worth the trip.

But… though he emphasizes the separate and relatively straightforward, benefit-for-pretty-much-everyone institution, and it is an approach to understand and learn from in its proper place, he does also say there needs to be a culture of acceptance of such organizations for them to really thrive, a context. To use his own words, “a whole new ecosystem of organizations that can begin to make its own rules. So, keep this in mind: change does happen piecemeal in many cases but in good ecological theory, “when we try to pick out anything by itself we find it hitched to everything else in the universe” as John Muir said.

How institutions work, fail or succeed

Gabriel covers many of the dynamics of institutions, especially in their formative stages. He discusses how to gather people around an idea, how to enunciate the values at the core that don’t challenge hot political issues of the time – common goals featured prominently. For example, Jane Jacobs in her book Systems of Survival – A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics, posits two sets of percepts pretty well adhered to one by the left on one wing, and another on the right. She points out that a few percepts, and especially “be courageous,” is common to both. In fact she points out writers who have held that courage is the “master virtue” in that it makes the practice based on all the other virtues possible. Similarly, pick a physical issue that improves by standards widely shared, such as health, and proceed without so much resistance to do that type of good that is perceived to benefit all. If City CarShare moves us toward the multiple virtues of the ecocity with solutions in numerous categories, progress should be enjoyed by both left and right.

Gabriel also covers development and enunciation of the mission, the financing and the strategy of the institution, often a non-profit, or a business. Sometimes it is a branch of government such as Jerry Brown established. I mentioned above redevelopment agencies when introduced. The central, defining new institution that young Gov. Brown launched was the Office of Appropriate Technology (OAT) in his first through second term as governor, 1975 through 1983. His OAT-centered initiatives (“ecosystem of organizations”) featured innovative architect Sim Van der Ryn as State Architect and founder of the Trust for Public Land Huey Johnson as Resources Director for the state. OAT, as it was known to activists and bureaucrats and pronounced like the nice edible grain, oat, at the time supported wind, solar, recycling, organic farming and other technologies “appropriate” to healthier living relative to human’s resource base, personal health and health of the environment. It was a heady time for me as I knew Sim and Huey modestly well personally and shared ideas with both of them. My poster for a proposed “Integral Neighborhood” in West Berkeley was tacked to the OAT office wall in Sacramento of Ty Cashman who was then head of work for wind electric power in California.

Jerry Brown’s innovative governmental institutions were definitely alternative to the 1950s oddly comfortable materialist yet war-like values of the mainstream of the early Vietnam War years that long overstayed their popularity and legitimacy by the early 1970s. Thus much in the results of the alternative institution of OAT and its related organized institutions entered the mainstream, accepted even by the President of the United States and dramatized by Jimmy Carter placing solar power on the roof of the White House. Then in the 1980s Brown’s institutions and those of many others that had gained mainstream traction were partially subverted by the policies of the Reagan Era, equally dramatically and treated as something of a joke when Reagan pulled the solar panels off the White House in a flourish of cynical showmanship. But deeper down, the foundation values – and simple logic of the way nature and resources actually work – are recently showing many signs of coming back. Welcome solar; more people than ever are buying organic food, young people aren’t so desirous of cars, more want the convenience and excitement of downtown, bicycle culture growing and etc.

Dare to be co-opted!

Democratic by Design features I think a particularly insightful investigation into the ways innovative organizations can be co-opted, that is, deflected from their values and programs by the more powerful mainstream. Think for example of large foundations largely writing new programs for non-profits by simply holding out money to do things the way they like. I’m familiar with more examples of this than I like to think about, but Mike Davis probably says it better than I can in his book Planet of Slums in which he questions the value of small businesses and larger non-profits that support small scale, one might think “appropriate” technologies and services, but ones whose message is largely that “government

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The photographer, Anne Hamersky, had an oddball sense of humor in a the series of photos she did for a 1993 article in which, as often, I critiqued automobiles. Berkeley Monthly, July Issue. It’s me, believe it or not. Direction, casting and set design: Anne Hamersky.

doesn’t have a problem,” as Reagan famously stated, “government is the problem.” Then these small businesses and the non-profits that take money from the larger foundations, and sometime smaller foundations too, help promulgate the idea that businesses and the idea of private profit, not government and public service, are the real engine of the economy and we should reduce government services, lower taxes on the rich and privileged and loosen regulations designed to protect people and nature alike. Plus the actual work tends to not be what the group would necessarily think best supports its mission. Davis points out that many micro lending programs generally enable poor people to improve their lives modestly but the same level of general poverty exists throughout society. They advance a little, others fall while meantime the divide between poor and rich grows even wider and trust in government and hence its power to work for the common good erodes. Leave it to business, which you don’t vote for, to solve our problems. I think Davis is right about these alternative institutions, but at the same time there are other causes of poverty not addressed well as yet, such as growing population wearing down the resource base and poor structure of cities forcing people to turn to cars or suffer incredibly long commutes. Again, it’s Gabriel’s “ecosystem of organizations” some of the “alternative” ones at least addressing the problems if not succeeding in solving them, but in their synergy have a better chance of success than if acting alone.

In Davis’ scenario, the power flows from the very wealthy to the foundations that then award money to the “civil sector” or “NGOs” (non-governmental organizations) that promote small businesses and the notion that they are there because government just can’t do its more activist job. I noticed that it took fully 16 years, 1974 to 1990, from the time that I started seeking money from foundations to actually getting $1,000 each from two small foundations (for the First International Ecocity Conference) and thence continued getting only very small support, tending more recently to rather small support. The real money went to the organizations whose mission either wasn’t very “alternative” from the first or to those that changed to better fit what the foundations wanted to promote. As my friend Sylvia McLaughlin, co-founder of the Save the San Francisco Bay Association (aka Save the Bay) – who actually did save San Francisco Bay from massive filling and pollution – reminded me a few times that foundations generally fund alternatives that aren’t really. They like slow change they can be part of and keep an eye on, change that doesn’t change the basics much; that way they can keep control for the established wealthy elite.

Gabriel’s rendition of “co-option” surprised me a little in that he focused mostly on organizations changing, sometime so much as to subvert their programs. This dynamic he followed with insights to educate any person in an activist mode. I was more familiar with the other brand of co-option, meaning the establishment picking up on what the innovators initiate, as when for example the mainstream food corporations become a little more “organic” and make small changes in that direction, taking the wind out of the sails of the small and prior alternative institutions promoting organic foods.

Then again, Gabriel Metcalf sees something of a success when that kind of co-option mainstreams not just thousands of people going for deeper organic, say, but tens or hundreds of millions picking up on the terminology and going shall we say organic lite. Sometimes it really is progress and we see society making a more fundamental shift. He says he would call some cases of co-option by another name: success.

If not a social change goal, what is it really? The physical serving the social.

Carsharing sounds like an odd one at first glance, for major changes in the world. But in fact the automobile is an enormous influence on city structure. In fact there is the whole system that is the physical built environment made up of several completely interrelated elements that comprise radically different whole systems. They are largely, from village scale to large cities, 1.) physical layout of the built environment, 2.) transportation system and 3.) energy system, all entwined together. We’ve been building the scattered, automobile dominated city powered by and dependent on massive use of cheap energy, the easy sort to get, mostly fossil fuels. Change any of those major components and the other two are greatly affected.

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The Baidu self-driving car as it appeared recently at a Chinese auto show. It doesn’t fit the pedestrian ecocity, pushing people off the streets just like any other car. San Francisco Chronicle, March 21, 2016.

In seeing transportation and land use patterns as being especially important and tightly interrelated, I’ve often said “the better the car the worse the city.” But that depends on cars being basically what we see now: privately owned and operated vehicles about 30 times as heavy as a human being traveling about 10 times as fast in normal operation. What if they weighed only three times as much as a human being more like a “cart” than a “car” and traveled around in cities at a maximum of around 20 miles an hour, mixing with little danger with bicycles close but to one side? Answer: they genuinely are morphing into something else with something like a magnitude reduction in energy use, land occupied and victims sacrificed to the gods of excessive mobility in vehicle accidents. As people say about major change in economics, “Now we’re talking real money,” we can say in city design terms, “Now we’re talking real ecocity.” Everything changes, including a land use shift toward more compact, fine grain, pedestrian design with a scale and speed change this large.

What if the car is a City CarShare that shrinks to more like a cart in size, speed and energy requirements? If the vast majority of other vehicles were similarly small and the utility trucks were a little smaller than they are now – fire engines in Europe for example are smaller than in the United States, the better to navigate the narrower old streets there – but slower. With more density and diversity of activities closer together you don’t have to go so far to get what you need. Such change would be enormous and benefit everyone, even farmers their land acreage and people, animals, plants and natural environments their health.

Gabriel points out we need cultural acceptance of a whole rather large cluster of these smallish alternative institutions to constitute a larger whole – then society will be much healthier. Or, in the positive type of co-option, what if the larger corporations and government actually built the ecocity and the sub-technologies that make sense in that context, such as solar electric systems and public transit? They create millions of “green jobs” in the process too. His strategy of learning about and getting good at building these alternative institutions then definitely has a place.

Near the beginning of his book Gabriel says, “The alternative institutional strategy depends on having the end in mind at the beginning. What would the world look like if the alternative succeeded in becoming the normal way of doing things?” Then he goes off into a projection into the future that I think is utterly disastrous, contradictory to what I see as ecologically healthy city design – or perhaps just stopping far too soon on the good road he starts down.

He continues: “The carsharing movement, as of this writing, is still evolving quickly… As driverless vehicles move toward becoming a reality, and as we witness a wave of business-led innovation in transportation services, carsharing has come to seem like just the smallest beginning of a broader change in urban mobility.” Then two pages later, “…perhaps eventually driverless cars would whisk people around and finally put an end to widespread personal car ownership.”

Still swamped in cars?! Terrible! Still “whisking” about too fast for pedestrians, pushing them off the streets of the future city just like now? No street redesign for humans? It may sound strange that I’d take pride in being able to drive well, but whatever happens to knowledge and competence about the world we humans actually create that we’d not be embarrassed that we could use a car and not even be able to parallel park the little monster, much less not even understand basically how to operate – drive – such a basic tool right in the middle of our lives?

On March 21 the San Francisco Chronicle featured an article about an artificial intelligence expert named Andrew Ng. The title of the article: “Humans should adapt to driverless vehicles, expert says.” They are inevitable. Get used to them. Roll over and play dead. Let the tool rule people, not vice versa. Is this getting a little beyond a little nuts?

Even if smaller in number than today’s fleet of cars, driverless cars would still require wider streets than the pedestrian streets of pre-car days or future ecocity days. Why not recognize cities can actually exist with zero cars: all cities from 4,500 CE to around 1895 were car-free. Car-free contemporary cities exist too, and are strikingly pleasant and economically successful, such as Venice, Italy; Gulangyu, China; Zermatt, Switzerland; the Medina of Fez, Morocco; Lamu in Kenya, Avalon on Catalina Island right next to car-crazy Los Angeles. Why give up the streets to cars at all instead of going far enough along the healthy road to ecocities that Gabriel Metcalf starts down? The carshare car may be a step in the right direction but we need to see beyond the car itself if we are to ever have a truly healthy city.

Ultimately I think the exercise of thinking through the alternative institution approach to “mobility” is well worth the time reading Democratic by Design, but skip that weird destination that continues the car addiction. Keep in mind that what we need is physical access at radically reduced speed, consumption of physical space and use of energy. We can get it by designing with “access by proximity” in mind rather than starting out always seeking ever more “mobility.” Access is the point of mobility, gained without the damage of the far too much mobility we now “enjoy” at the expense of human tragedy and ecological disasters still accelerating world-wide. But, as you think through these important observations in Gabriel’s otherwise deeply insightful tour of alternative institutions and sometimes good conclusions remember there is a destination some distance farther down that road that is far, far healthier than can be imagined with any kind of car – electric, self-driven or shared.


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Will we ever stop building cities for cars instead of people?

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Ecocity Economics 101

Tina Huang : February 26, 2016 9:59 pm : Richard's blog :

Richard Register

Some of you regular readers of our Ecocity Builders Newsletter might be interested in the way my mind works, which is largely through visual representation, so this article is one version of that. This will be something of an introduction to my book also, World Rescue – an Economics Built on What We Build, which is coming out this very month, available via Amazon. (Don’t have a mainstream publisher yet but expect to get there later.)

I’ll also look at Naomi Klein’s partial conversion and transformation (she says she’s a convert herself) in her recent book This Changes Everything. She says she used to be a climate change denier, but not any more. She even likes some things the World Bank has done and sees a little positive in some capitalism.

Then I’ll lay out some of my ideas around something I call “exaggerated gamesmanship,” one of my favorite constructs from my new book, along with the concept I call “dimensional pairs,” another of my new ideas. I wrote about that one last spring in these electronic pages, spring boarding from my talk at a conference in Baku, Azerbaijan called “New Paradigms in Human Development.”

Then I’ll relate all that to the way I think about designing cities. I hope you will enjoy it! Welcome to more visual – graphic if you will – type of thinking.

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1.a, 1.b Endosymbiosis

People love games and there is opposition everywhere in life as we “struggle to survive.” In the mid 1800s Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace emphasized competition in the flow of evolution. Along came a few ecologists in the early 1900s suggesting there might be something later called endosymbiosis, the phenomenon of single celled bacteria (prokaryotic cells) invading other single celled bacteria, getting inside (endo-) and instead of eating the intended food source or being eaten like amoebas do their food critters, ended up coexisting, the one internal to the other. Then the two adjusted to each other over millions of years and ended up benefiting the whole new relationship, becoming together a new kind of cell. Living together beneficially is called symbiosis and thus the term became “endosymbiosis.”

Also thus, the total became the first truly modern complex cell (eukaryotic cell) that now make up all those plants and all us animals. The invading (or enveloped cells, depending on your point of view), then internal to the engulfing cells, became what is called organelles within the becoming more complex larger cells. In plants one of the invaders was blue-green algae, aka cyanobacteria, which became the chloroplasts (that type of organelle) within the cells of the plants that proceeded to convert minerals, waters and gasses with the power of sunshine into sugars, starches and cellulose. Very important! That’s where, as animals, our energy and much of our food comes from. In animal cells the early invading pests (guests?) that came to stay became the energy-burning, movement-specializing mitochondria (that type of organelle) in the larger, now called, animal cell. Look in the mirror: all you see is that kind of cell, but millions of them.

My hero Lynn Margulis researched and greatly advanced the idea and insistently supported it until symbiosis was embraced by practically all biologists today. Thus her work came to forcefully introduce the element of cooperation – in the extreme – into the understanding of evolution. In a sense Darwin and Wallace represented competition while she represented cooperation and together we get the crucial two seemingly opposed dimensions of complex life on our planet. Voila! Evolution finally explained in its two major dynamic components.

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2. Exaggerated gamesmanship

The idea of exaggerated gamesmanship sees in evolution and ecology these balanced two dimensions as basically the game of life, competition and cooperation. They also roughly represent the relationship of capitalism and competition in most economic schemes with socialism. But in relation to the various games we humans play, other filigrees spin out getting quite exaggerated, some causing a good deal of trouble, horror even. There are card games, board games, sports games, influence games and racist, religious and nationalist games of competition morphing into attempts at conversion, dominance and exploitation which has historically often magnified into war. The game of capitalism vs. socialism is, in human economics, one such game that can get enormously magnified. Let me define those as tending to opposite poles, the more extreme of which on “the right” is generally called fascism where a repressive clique, tending to violence, employing slave labor in times of war and through a small number of individuals own most of the means of production, and, on the “left,” the extreme is called communism, under which a small number of individuals control most of the means of production – including the people they claim to be representing. I’ll talk about the milder form of it all with capitalism vs. socialism, one of those games that can get out of control.

Unfortunately Naomi Klein, though she has caught on to the importance of dealing with climate change and is now fully aware of it’s planet-wide life expunging “potential” already pretty “kinetic,” has, in her own self-created tradition (her previous book was the extraordinarily powerful The Shock Doctrine – The Rise of Disaster Capitalism), has subtitled her present book Capitalism vs. The Climate. She neglects the fact that socialism in many of its expressions and manifestations has been just as anthropocentric and just as eager as capitalism to exploit the hell out of nature, claiming to be doing it for all The People rather than only for the elite rich, and just as enthusiastic in exploitation of nature and waging repression and war. I like the way John Kenneth Galbraith put it in one of the many entertaining quotes I got from him, included in my new book: “Under capitalism, man exploits man. Under socialism, it’s just the opposite.”

When I was in Bolivia three months ago Evo Morales was in New York and said at the United Nations it is time to put an end to capitalism. I agree with Mr. Morales, but add that it is also time to put an end to socialism too, realizing that they are polarities of the same thing, which I’d call capital economics, not capitalism and not socialism. We need to tone down the heated exaggerations that dramatize and gain attention while raising levels of fear and anger and stop fighting one another as we need to both stop fighting nature.

We need the synthesis, just as the simple cells, pre-eukaryotic, could and did become one new kind of whole. True, they divided again into two “camps” you might say, plants and animals, and in the rather brutal way of nature’s evolution, the animals were busy ripping up, grinding down, chewing up and swallowing the plants, and even some of each other. But not without delivering services like pollination and spreading and fertilizing seeds for the plants. Enormous biodiversity and many think much fascination and beauty came from this New Deal. I mean would you really like to live in an ever so simple and boring prokaryotic world?

Capitalism and socialism are the economics version of my “dimensional pairs.” Why not just recognize that both have positive things to offer and both are prone to particular types of problems? Why not take the best from both and try to tone down the exaggerations and excesses that damage people and nature both? Why not see them both as dimensions of the other making up our capital system, meaning an economic system that uses capital as a medium of exchange.

As in my graphic above, it is traditional to see capitalism championing the idea that the individual is the pinnacle of evolution’s good works. The capitalists have the inconvenient truth about them, for the socialists, that they in fact often produce things in their sometimes harsh ways of exploitation, that are useful or hotly desired things that “the people” buy up and not only benefit from and enjoy but many cases even become virtually addicted to, like video games. The railroad barons produced what? Railroads! I love taking the train. The car companies built what? Millions of cars. Why? Not because they love building stuff but because people wanted or were advertised into wanting them – and then bought them. Whose fault is it that cars have wrecked the landscape, turned healthy pedestrian environments into the sprawl that delivers us the climate change Naomi Klein is now railing against? Cars addicted us to easy, cheap, impulsive transportation, the thrill of speed, the ego trips that snare lovers through splashy courtship display of the sort I took part in when I was in my teens and early twenties, in a shiny, flashy, escape-your-parent’s-prying-eyes automobiles. They worked!

But that also means capitalists remain extremely vulnerable to the people’s buying habits – so why don’t the people stop buying what the corporations try to make indispensible? We can all reshape our habits with a little – or lot – of effort, even reshape our cities and skip the cars, given a couple decades. Television is not indispensible, for example. I’ve never owned one in my whole life (for more than 20 minutes and then sold it at a profit) and seldom look at one. It is obviously not necessary. I’m not dead yet!

The socialists have a powerful point that the rising inequality in material terms is causing injustices and immense damage socially which come largely from the excesses of those who appear to command the big companies. Everyone acknowledges the necessity to amass enormous amounts of capital for large social projects, something the capitalists literally monopolized in the late 1800s in the US, but something the extreme socialists in the USSR monopolized – capital – even more massively with similar damage to nature and most would agree truly disastrous damage to the millions of people sent off to Siberia or outright “liquidated.”

So the polarities as in the graphic could amount to a game of back and forth with points scored in the game, opportunities to impress your friends and win your spouse while delivering something to both society and yourself, even deliver to nature, as when people create wilderness areas and protect endangered species.

But if it gets extreme…

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3. Dimensional pairs

A dimensional pair is a pair of somethings, without the other, nothing. A cosmic dimensional pair would be, for example space and time. Hard to imagine one of those without the other. Another such pair is energy and matter. Can’t imagine either of those separate from the other. In fact, modern physics talks about space/time warping and energy and matter are in some ultimate way the same whole, as expressed by Einstein in his famous formula E=mc2. The ancients of China and Korea used to express the seeming contradictions of opposites that nonetheless harmonize in the yin-yang symbol, which is even on the Korean national flag. But when you start seeing the “opposites” as dimensions that can’t exist unless paired, it begins to make the hard if nicely gracefully curved line become fuzzy. What’s the best graphic representation among the four above to represent in unity of dimensions? I certainly don’t know but it is an interesting question to think about. (A student in one of my classes said the one on the lower right looked like the abstracted face of the God of the cosmos, something of an ultimate physics/math space/time reality staring down at him.)

Another dimensional pair: the unique and the universal. It gets down to “the exclusionary principle” that two things can’t occupy the same space at the same time (though some versions of math-dominated physics suggest this might not be true after all). In more human terms, we know we are all the same in many ways, our bodies with extremely closely related DNA and basic arrangement of our sub systems, in similar bodies, called organs. And yet each of us is completely unique in many details of anatomy, experience, personality, tastes and so on all at the same time.

The capitalism/socialism pair has many of the attributes of a dimensional pair, which is a reason I think of them as tendencies within a single system largely animated by capital based exchange, capital economics not capitalist.

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4. Earth’s natural economics – solar energy to the biosphere

My way of looking at economics is to see human economics embedded in nature’s economics. The vast majority of nature’s economics is powered by solar energy alighting on the minerals, liquids and gases of our planet, symbolized with some color enhancement in this illustration.

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5. Plants catch the sun

Plants with chlorophyll transform the sun’s energy to food, fuel and fiber. Plants account for over 1000 times the biomass of animals. In this picture you can’t see a single animal. But the animals provide crucial diversity supporting services to the plants and the whole system. What we see in this image is nature’s industrial “plant” – millions of plants – turning out fantastic quantities of nature’s economic product sometimes called PPP, primary photosynthetic product.

:6. Photosynthesis.png

6. Photosynthesis makes sugars, starches, cellulose…

This is the simplest sugar, glucose, product of solar energy making chemical changes through the process of photosynthesis. In nature’s economics, here comes the primary energy source for us animals – and your gas stove, much of the electricity in factories, transport, comfortable temperature maintenance… Here is the connector between nature’s and humanities economics.

:7. Mammal biomas.png

7. Humans dominate mammals – massively!

I’ve featured this graph in two of my past articles. I call it the scariest graph I’ve ever seen. If we were to weigh all the humans on Earth (around 2002 in any case, when Vaclav Smil of the University of Manatoba gathered this data for his book The Earth’s Biosphere – evolution, dynamics and change) we’d weigh about 358 million tons, while all the wild mammals on the surface of the Earth would weigh only 34 million tons. More amazing, our food animals and pets would total 784 million tons. Adding us and the mammals that exist for our pleasure only we have appropriated 1,142 million tons of mammal flesh just for me, me, me. That one species, out of thousands of mammal species, should appropriate more than 97% of the mammal biomass on the planet to its own purposes, mainly to eat them, and leave less than 3% wild and free, is a dramatic statement not only of overpopulation in some kind of extreme, but begins to look like overpopulation is edging into exterminating practically all our closer relatives on Earth. The product of ALL biomass, including plants, with whole forest cut and gone and grasslands transformed to food crops and rangeland for our food, milk and leather animals… I don’t have figures on that yet. But you can begin to understand the proportions, the magnitude of our taking for our exclusive purposes from nature’s economics. I might also mention that since these figures were gathered in 2002 it is quite likely the wild and free mammals are by now less than 2% of the mammal biomass on Earth and for ourselves we are physically consuming over 98%. Including utilizing the plants in similar fashion, what percentage of PPP? It would be interesting and undoubtedly depressing to know, those of us who care.

So rethinking our economics has to take into account several things at once: our population, our agriculture practices and diet, and the built infrastructure we have created, mostly shaped by our mania for cars driven by very cheap energy. Add that all up and it ain’t work’n out very well.

:8. Natures economics on Earth .png

8. Human economy embedded in Nature’s

The above graphic represents the raw material for nature’s economics: minerals, water, air and solar energy, and once it all gets started, the biology itself that lives partially on itself.

Human economy is as Thomas Berry says, “derivative” of nature’s, nested in, based on, embedded in – different was of saying we are completely dependent. Some scientists say maybe not – maybe we could make factories to grind up minerals and mix in water and come up with artificial means to do what chlorophyll already does so nicely for us already. Mineral vegetables to eat and machine made meat? I’ll just leave all that hanging, wondering what it might taste like and how to manufacture that, and why to manufacture that?

What is especially interesting to me in this graphic is that in the human economy we have the early layer, you might say, that I discuss at length in my new book, World Rescue, after reading the work of Marcel Mauss and Karl Polanyi. The idea is that early economics were permeated with generosity – giving to the child, giving to one another, and before “numeracy,” the knowledge of numbers and of the usefulness of the value of quantification at any level of complexity, and before there was capital, that is money, people kept relatively vague material values for things and services in their heads. They gained status in giving and incurred obligations in receiving, round and round in cycles of tradition in the nature of community life.

Money was invented first as agreements to be remembered – verbal money I call it. Then it took physical form carrying three qualities: 1.) it served as something representing something else, not being the thing itself, being thereby a “medium of exchange, plus 2.) a holder of value over time, plus 3.) a means of quantifying.

Another factor at play: the artifact list. My first job ever, when I was 16, was with an archeology expedition digging up Indian ruins on the New Mexico and Colorado border. The entire artifact list of that culture would probably have fit on one sheet of paper, both sides, double columns, Times New Roman, 12 point.

As the artifact list of a culture gets longer and longer there emerges the actual need to invent something with those three above qualities. Fruits and fish couldn’t be used because they don’t last very long. Pots or bags of dry grains in desert regions served in some societies. Then things of utility that were pretty universally useful – if you had a lot of whatever they were you could maybe trade them. For example one of the first forms of money in China was tools, such as knives but especially shovels. Marx would have liked that: the labor basis of value. But people decided to make smaller, lighter shovels to work for exchange more than for actual work, easier to move around. Shovels became shovel representations that shrank and shrank as people kept the idea in mind that these particular “shovels” were eventually useless for anything but exchange. And eventually they decided small flat pieces of metal would work better: coins. When it was realized all you really needed was agreement as to value and had places to store your money, that is capital, the Chinese invented paper money. And thus began not the age of capitalism but simply the age of capital economics that could tend toward either what we’d think of today as more capitalist or more socialist. Have fun playing your games but don’t exaggerate to the point of damage.

:9. Human economics imbedded in nature's.png

9. And with in capital economics…

…we have the gamesmanship of capitalist and socialist “tendencies” within, as I’m reminding us all below…

:10. exaggerated gamesman ship.png

#10 is the same as #2

But it is worth saying the obvious at this point, which is often ignored in capitalist vs. socialist and “just the opposite” which is that an ostensibly strongly socialist country even claiming to be communist, China, is stuffed with Lynn Margulis’ organelles of capitalism, a new synthesis of an interesting sort. Of course I’d think so – I make a fair share of my money there in speaking fees. Am I a capitalist or socialist? Then in something of the reverse but also what looks a lot like a eukaryotic combination we have strong socialist tendencies in the largely capitalist democracies of northern Europe.

:11. Ecocity and ecotown design and planning.png

My version of ecocity design and planning

I’ll wind up with a graphic as to how I think through designing and planning an ecocity, on the run you might say, that is, incorporating feedback as initiatives face reality and corrections are incorporated into the future.

First off we have the gifts of our environment, solar energy arriving on Earth in the fullness of evolutionary time and in the moment to moment flow of ecology. In that we need to learn the basic patterns from nature. Those are represented in the upper left in the bubble radiating sunshine and labeled “evolution and anatomy analogy with a separating line. Evolution tells us universe is changing in a pattern of emerging material stuff and types of energy that come from… where? The physicists have so far basically given up and just call it “emergence” all of it from the original “Big Bang” but in evolving new forms and types that can’t be predicted from previous condition. Big mystery as to where from, the first “Big Bang,” or the seemingly ever-happening appearance (emergence) of new stuff and energy in new phenomena.

The anatomy analogy is simply a way of saying cities, towns and villages are like complex living organisms and can gain a great deal in design and operation by noticing that, that is, the anatomy of both should be similar in basic principle, to whit: three-dimensional, not flat like a tortilla or suburbia. They should also both be highly efficient running on as little material and energy as possible for their functioning – and land area as well: compact.

The other most basic thing to think about is, once you’ve noticed the above conditions and principles, is a vague kind of intuition about where your design is headed. That we see where most of the various arrows seem to be tending toward the upper right of the graphic. There are two bubbles up there, one around the word “ecocity” and one around the word “ecocity fractal.” The ecocity fractal could be something like an in-city village. Building one of those things should create something very pleasant to live in if it was surrounded for the most part by the open space of farming and/or natural landscape. The ecocity fractal would have the essential components and functions of a larger ecologically tuned community – housing, jobs, commerce, food production and consumption, education and so on – and all of that optimally arranged in relation to the whole. This image, or vision, is something like a premonition based on some good knowledge already assembled.

Now in the lower left quadrant of the graphic we see a circle of nine bubbles, the upper four I say are “given” meaning given by nature, and the lower five are “built” meaning created by us humans. They all have to do with the building and maintenance of our eventual ecocity or ecocity fractal. The ones given, above the bright yellow and orange dashed line are biodiversity, sun, rain and minerals. The ones we create are food gardens, residence space to live in, workplace trading various made things about, and the actually making of products, including the architecture itself that houses and arranges the eventual ecocity or ecocity fractal that is for the moment a set of ideas in our heads. All the little red dotted lines are simply saying that all these components relate to all the others. I point out in the line of red letters that the architecture, as said, holds it all together eventually, physically. Also the vision of the architecture in maps, plans and drawing, photoshops – whatever – holds the whole process of planning and execution together conceptually and in communication between all participants in the process.

Now along the way we have little chokepoints in our lines of progress toward our goal, or milestones, which are often special meetings of planner, city council meeting and the policy such points of discussion and decision for next steps. These I represent with little red and blue dots. I mention in one of these, but which exist throughout the whole process, maps and zoning tools like transfer of development right, that is, means to shift the arrangements of architecture, open space and function of those. As we move along toward our ecocity and/or ecocity fractal goal/goals, I’ve indicated the correcting influence of environmental realities in blue lettering and more small dashed lines and arrows converging on our process.

Then let’s say we finally literally build something based on our original but transformed goal/goals. At that point we start learning all over again for future cities – and change the course of history and evolution both at the same time.

And Finally…

Buy the book by checking out the ad below. Thanks everyone. Let’s all work together, which includes the plants and animals that, as the living and successful for million of years others among us, also teach us many important things.

:12. Book ad image.png

World Rescue says…

Human economics are built on nature’s economics. Get used to it and thrive!

Want to understand what happened in the crash of ‘29 and the close encounter with a New Depression in ‘08? Look no farther.

What do our cities – largest creation of our species – have to do with climate change? Everything! Check it out. (It’s only logical, they are so gigantic.)

Species extinctions? Societies in collapse? Failing states? Solutions? It’s all here.

This book is perfect for the student of ecology, evolution, economics and just plain figuring out what to do next.

What have friends said about World Rescue?

William Rees, co-creator of the “ecological footprint”:

This should be the next read for anyone interested in the transformational re-design of urban civilization for survival in the Antrhopocene.

Joseph Alcamo, Chief Science Advisor, UN Framework Convention on Climate Change:

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Walter Truitt Anderson: “Richard Register belongs to the Ben Franklin Tradition of inventors,

generalists, and hopeful geniuses.”

For the serious student of the environment and the future, the builder of cities and villages, the policy maker and city planner, the professional architect and the man and woman in the street who are worried and want to do something, World Rescue promises how to do just that.

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Do your library, your office, your grandchildren a special treat. Buy the version in color – It sings out better times to come.





Comments are closed

And the Climate Solution is…

Tina Huang : November 27, 2015 6:39 pm : Richard's blog :

Not to sound like a television game show, and certainly not to offer a $64 billion dollar prize for the answer, as if money would do it all… but what is the best answer? That’s in the singular. Is there one? Skip oil; go solar? Are there a dozen? Find deeper causes? Are there as many as there are people on the planet about now?

The latter should be the democratic answer, but maybe they would all converge, the elite and the salt of the earth, in an approach that makes the best sense.

Another question is why would I presume to know something about all that? Welcome to democracy! We are all supposed to have worthwhile, helpful thoughts and exercise freedom of expression to do our best with them and it, thoughts and expression.

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Poster in the SkyTrain metro system in Vancouver, BC, Canada announcing a show on threats to the Arctic from climate change at the Vancouver Aquarium

Looming mushroom clouds

I can tell you something interesting about my own case, though. Back in the late 1950s when I was an adolescent my parents had friends – I even remember their names: John and Elizabeth Northrup, musicians and nuclear scientists, both of them working on hydrogen bombs – up there in the “Secret City” of Los Alamos, New Mexico, up on “the Hill” or “the Mesa” to the west of Santa Fe where I lived at the time.

Very good friends too. We’d sometimes went up the mountain to the laboratory city and spend a few meals and the night with them, my younger sister and I in sleeping bags on their floor. You couldn’t get into town with any kind of a visitor pass; your resident friend had to come greet you at the gate and state you were OK, highly unlikely to be a spy or saboteur – we didn’t have terrorists in those days. I visited the Northrup’s bomb shelter, the only one I ever entered, and was impressed by how deep it was under the house, way below the basement floor, impressed by the dark descending concrete hallway and staircase, the smooth but slow-opening 600 pound steel door, air vent tubes with filters, comic books and Monopoly board. I was pondering at that impressionable age waiting out a nuclear war under there casually playing a fun capitalist game of Monopoly while civilization went back to the Stone Age in writhing pain and death thanks to Commie vs. Wall Street and vice versa games outside. I was also wondering what being in the number 1 nuclear target city might be like. Would the ground roll with the force of the exploding bombs, dust fall from the ceiling as at the front line command post in war movies, but in this case with bombs big enough for any one of them to take out a whole city? And there we were, guests almost unbelievably, of scientists actually designing and making such weapons, prime targets themselves. Could it happen any second now? “We’ll survive anything but a direct hit,” said John the beautiful violinist, reassuringly.

In the afternoon after exploring the happy comics and games dungeon under the Northup’s house, the two families were having Thanksgiving dinner. I asked Mr. Northrup what he did on a typical day. “Well, work in the lab a lot.” He also fairly frequently flew from Los Alamos to Livermore National Nuclear Lab, he said, which is 30 miles east southeast of where I sit in Oakland, California writing on my computer right now. He said he went out there to brief generals on “Those nasty bombs we’re making.” Then he got a kind of distant look in the eye and said, “They’re crazy.” I remember asking, “What?” He answered not at all, repeating something like, “I don’t know… Those generals are just kind of crazy.” I wish I remembered more. But maybe, I think, that’s all he’d say about it.

The bottom line for this bit of writing is that my youth was dominated, way back in a sort of primordial fear place, by the looming profile of the famous mushroom cloud rising four times higher than the highest cloud you ever saw, threatening, darkening, seething with radiation. In occasional dreams I was blown away by an atomic shock wave. So I grew up wanting to defend the planet from such End of the World insanity. The urge rose up rather frequently, appearing in different worlds like what to do about the war in Vietnam? How to deal with the impacts of cities on the planet? What to think and do about the climate change problem? And what to offer for some ideas to hopefully be helpful.

Armageddon averted or just rescripted? Are we beginning to catch on?

Somehow we escaped that radioactive Armageddon, for the time being anyway. But some have commented that we are in the Third World War right now, without much awareness of the fact. It’s the slow burn attack of humanity against the world, nature’s world and humanity’s world both in one. The main effect of the attack is the actual heating of an entire planet, along with the extermination of our fellow species, one by one, hundreds by hundreds. It is such a gigantic proposition one can understand that people in vast numbers might just ignore the scientists studying climate change and its implications and go into denial – for a while. But by the time every five years averages hotter than the previous five years and the glaciers are melting away, it is hard to imagine all but the epic stupid missing that, yes, this catastrophe does seem to be well on its way.

Some of you know I’ve just written a book called World Rescue – an Economics Built on What We Build, which will be available in a matter of a few short weeks. (Speaking of economics, buy it!) It’s about solving some of our larger problems, not the least of which is the climate change problem we hear so much about heading into the United Nations’ next climate conference in Paris about the time most of you will be reading this article. As you have guessed rightly, I think building ecologically healthy cities, towns and villages has an enormously positive and helpful place in solving our current and growing climate change problem. Ecocities, as most economists in one of their moments of clarity would call “demand side,” radically reduce the demand for energy, land, money, sacrifices both animal and human to the gods of automobility on our streets and highways and, as Eisenhower said in his famous farewell address and warning about the military-industrial complex, wasting the genius of our people. A big part of the solution is to build so that very few of those problems happen in the first place. Ecocities would be big, but they are not enough. In my book I propose a broader solution I’ll get to momentarily.

Meantime, it is greatly encouraging that cities and their designs and development patterns are beginning to be a major topic in important climate change events, COP 21, as the next one is called, being especially important. As most of us know, that stands for the 21st in the series of Conferences of the Parties. Specifically those parties are representatives of national governments deliberating on eventual international treaties addressing and attempting to solve the global heating and climate change problems that are already melting glaciers and causing climate and weather events abnormal or even unique in the last half million years.

One example of this ecocity progress was the powerful talk presented by Joseph Alcamo at our 11th International Ecocity Conference held in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates on October 13, 2015. Joe is an old friend to ecocities going back to the mid 1970s when we were both living in Berkeley, California and the basic ideas for ecocities were in early stages of gestation. Currently he is a research team leader at the University of Kassel, Germany where he is the Executive Director of the Center for Environmental Systems Research. Very importantly, he is also Chief Science Advisor to Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change which is one and the same as the COP series of UN conferences on climate change. His talk title was: “Ecocities and their key role in fulfilling the international climate treaty.” To over summarize on over heating, Alcamo laid out the reasons for scientifically establishing emission targets and describing some of the ways in which ecocities greatly reduce demand for the energy that is the most direct cause of the problem.

I might add that he was one of our Important speakers at the First International Ecocity Conference in 1990 in Berkeley, California along with other leaders in their fields such as legendary environmentalist Dave Brower; author of Ecotopia, Ernest Callenbach; first real innovator, systematizer and philosopher of ecocities, architect Paolo Soleri; philosopher Fritjof Capra; pioneering bioregionalist Peter Berg; and one of the rarified few humans to walk on the moon, astronaut Edgar Mitchell. It was inspiring to shake the hand of a man who walked the moon – and listen to his warning about how delicate our whole Earth seemed from that distance, everyone and everything he loved so small against the stars and endless void that as he raised his hand the whole planet disappeared behind his thumb.

“Whole Systems” – key concept

But I am delaying the introduction to what I’d propose. You will find the idea in World Rescue and I’ve mentioned it before in this newsletter without special notice to its specific relationship to climate change. But here goes and it has everything to do with solving a wide range of problems: take the whole systems perspective. Proportionalize the specific major components of human actions that impact climate, prioritize for the largest and most important among them and don’t procrastinate: get busy addressing them with the most effective strategies we can imagine for each part in the overall strategy. You might also notice this works for solving a wide range of the other major problems we have: species extinctions, decline of non-renewable resources, general pollution of the world environment, collapse of ocean species, acidification of the ocean and so on. And, these problems all interrelate.

Proportionalize, you might note isn’t even a word, says Microsoft Word’s spelling and grammar feature. Yet what better way for finding the correct proportions so that we can move on to properly assess priorities? This is a hint as to an important gap in our process of analyzing and strategizing for solving larger scale problems of complex systems, such as the biosphere, whole cities and the climate system.

You might note Professor Alcamo is a team leader of the Center for Environmental Systems Research at his university. There’s that word “systems” again. When I first visited him after his graduate study years at the University of California, he was in Vienna, Austria at the International Institute for Applied Systems (again) Analysis studying trans-boundary air pollution in Europe and supplying data and analysis for restitution between polluting countries and victims of the industrial nation’s contamination, money transfers to help repair and otherwise help compensate for the damage caused by the polluters. That was in the mid 1980s when Joe was cutting his teeth on international treaty negotiations and strategy for political solutions to our environmental problems, about eight years after I met him.

A system is a whole that functions well when all its component parts are present and well arranged in their best positions relative to one another. Thus our eyes are on the front not the back of our heads, despite our tendency to “drive into the future through the rear view mirror,” following trends, acquiescing to long established habits and even what are called “best practices” giving us – we hope – good guidance in where we are going ahead rather than behind us. But even best practices are part of the total matrix of influences and sometimes might not be so good after all, such as best cars – which help perpetuate building cities for cars on into the future, postponing dealing with reorganizing the whole “system” of the city, continuing to promote sprawl, paving, demand for floods of transport fuel and so on.

Good designers of course give respectful credence to what are seen as past successes, but these nonetheless have sometimes landed us in a lot of the disasters still on-going. More essential to their art is noticing the principles that govern the functioning of the whole system.

I often compare cities to complex living organisms. This is not my original idea by any means. I first heard it from Italian born architect and profound thinker Paolo Soleri at his house and workshop in Paradise Valley, the hopeful name of that northeast part of Phoenix, Arizona sprawl. Then, in 1965, it was more like a rural actual desert paradise of clear skies, tall vermillion tufted ocotillo cactuses and wild west mountains you thought you’d seen in some cowboy movie. I stated calling this “the anatomy analogy:” the city is like a complex living organism. One of its most important features must be that its form should be compact, efficient and basically three-dimensional, not flat and scattered, the basic form of automobile dependent suburbia. I quickly considered this to be a truly fundamental principle for designing cities, in fact designing almost any whole system “phenomenon” as Soleri would tend to word it.

Complex or complicated – the distinction is important

Dig a little deeper into this same project of trying to understand systems and you discover not only do occasional practices that appear “best” actually turn out to be counter-best, shall we say, but that another common misunderstanding is that simple is good and complex is bad. Or at least complex is exhausting in our modern day world in the way that used to be called “the rat race” but that today is diffused across not just work and career but permeating a wildly chaotic environment also of entertainment, leisure, social and cultural cacophony, the onslaught of international news and so on. But this random swarm of experience is more complicated and normally confusing not because it’s complex but because it isn’t. That is, there is no order in it, or at least it is hard to find the order. Without the order what’s the meaning? What are the patterns that give us a handle on… or maybe better, a screen to sift out the useless, meaningless, contradictory and even destructive?

When the parts are well integrated we can see systems as whole and healthy in their environment. It all makes sense and is relatively easy or at least “natural” to deal with. Nothing simple about, for example, permaculture (a type of organic farming unified with homestead, and sometimes community design), as well as ecocity design. Nothing simple about our bodies or our minds. What you don’t want is simple, as in frontal lobotomy.

When the basics are understood, whole systems become comfortably handle-able, if that’s a word. When you “get” the relationship of parts, such as say of a bird, an analogy I use sometimes, and you know wings are for flying, legs are for landing, beak is for eating, eyes for seeing, feathers for insulation and slipping through the air gracefully with minimal resistance and so on down to the microscopic genetic material level, plus with a little about the bird’s diet and life habits like nest building, you can then easily understand the animal and relate to it in a way that might seem simple enough but is actually an understanding based on the good coordination of parts within the animal and the basics of how that animal behaves in its environment. So too with how to design ecocities, and maybe even how to solve the climate change problem. There is a whole system there and by understanding the causal major components and their interconnections we have a good chance for a solution.

James Miller in his textbook-style 1,002 page tome Living Systems (no subtitle) says there are 19 essential subsystems in all living organisms once we get more complex than single celled organisms. We are familiar with most of them in our own anatomy and can see the parallel in bones with architecture, veins and arteries with streets and rails, nerves with telephone wires and radio and microwave signals, vocal cords with radio stations, reproductive organs with schools and scolding parents that teach how to keep the city and the culture going. Miller identifies some subsystems within whole systems we might not have thought of, such as various feedback and correction mechanisms for on-going health, but basically – and he spends a thousand pages spinning this all out in great detail – there are 19.

He leads into all this by studying the functions of the organs (subsystems) in basic terms, then goes on to examine not only living bodies but group dynamics, formal organizations, whole societies and “the supernational system” meaning transnational systems including cultural, business and political systems all. Think cultural exchange systems, World Trade Organization and defense alliances, for examples. He looks at ships as one physical case in point, major development projects we’d call mixed use these days, and whole cities.

He doesn’t dig into the planet with its “organs” that we might see in its lithosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere and biosphere all interrelating in its climate system in various ways. Thinking big, early ecologists like Russian scientist Vladimir Vernadsky and French priest and paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin spoke of a sphere of knowledge created by human society, the by far most active of the thinking part of the biosphere, that they called the “noesphere” or “noosphere.” Soleri was especially influenced by de Chardin and the noosphere idea, deciding that the city amounts to concentrations of consciousness and action parallel in many ways to a brain in the totality of the noosphere. He considered the city to be a human creation in the saga of evolution following earlier established patterns and even laws of nature unfolding in a kind of constant creation process into the future.

Magic numbers

Getting back to solving the climate problem now, could there be a method, looking at the whole system of the planet’s climate, interrelated with human systems that might work? I think it would have to start with recognizing the most consequential of human activities in relation to climate. Nothing too controversial about that except that instead of doing that, most people involved tend to take a random approach, bouncing around in the usual way of chaotic habits here, policies there, better technologies to be applied, worse life styles to be toned down and so on. Even scientists involved tend to be, in their own terminology, “siloed” in their particular disciplines which involves focusing like a laser on particular problems, striving for certainty.

One result of this approach, and with seeking the consequential, is noticing that, obviously, our energy system is based mostly on fossil fuels and they are producing so much carbon dioxide the atmosphere is deep into the “greenhouse effect” heating up as if we had a layer of glass erected over our heads. It’s there actually, but made up of “greenhouse gasses” in the atmosphere, most consequentially at this point CO2. So, switch to renewable energy technologies that don’t do that and perhaps, some say, nuclear energy.

But taking a whole systems approach we need to ask why we need that much energy in the first place and also what else in the sense of subsystems interrelating in the whole system of the planet is crucial to deal with. In other words we need to utilize the methods of the science of ecology and understand deeper links in chains of causes and effects and understand what might be thought of as the lateral connections that could be seen as a pattern of simultaneous networks of cross influence. Just every day ecology.

But… Proportionalizing is the key my friends. Getting a sense of the true

proportions of things so we can prioritize and see the major parts of the whole and how the parts interrelate is a crucial and generally omitted step in thinking through a means to stop the rapid heating of the planet and perhaps actually reverse the damaging processes. Yes solar and wind energy systems are also crucial, but we all use energy in a very complicated disordered sort of way, almost swimming in a churning, flowing soup of energy in almost everything we do. Go for renewable energy systems for sure and implement them broad spectrum as soon as we can but realize that other major causal patterns and forces are directing these flows of energy.

Similarly we are all made of matter in complex arrangements and should be careful to recycle non-renewables, as well as simply conserve, also broad spectrum. Matter like energy is part of the matter/energy basic constituents of our total reality, and though it is important to say we need assiduous recycling, what are the forces demanding and directing flows of matter as well as energy?

Miller sees 19 subsystems to be understood, at least intuitively once the first five, six or seven most conspicuous subsystems (or organs in the case of biological bodies are concerned). I think we have an easier conceptual task if we deal with 6 items as what I think of as the Big Ones, the six issues that have the most powerful effect on clarifying the mind in relation to climate and even the rising of the seas and flows of its currents, not to speak extinction of large swaths of the biosphere’s plants and animals. If we select the Big Ones that help order both our thinking and the actual conditions on this planet relative to climate change we will have the best chance of understanding how to prioritize and move forward, most important things first, instead of randomly trying this and that, if always shifting in a good direction toward renewable energy sources. I’ll leave out nuclear for its dangers in other areas like accidents and waste and leave it out because with a whole systems approach we don’t need all that energy anyway.

I also believe that if we do focus strongly on a smaller number of the really important ones we provide not a simple but a clear approach that gives us an order we can work with easily. The magic number is the small one that provides a means for progress. As said, it all becomes comprehensible – and we are talking solving climate change problems here – even easily comprehensible in its strategy paradoxically with complexity at its core. This on a planetary scale in just the way that we can understand the whole system of the bird and her functioning given as an earlier example. The small number of big things provides the illusion of simple, and if that works, go with it!

So here are my Six Big Ones:

The physical

1. Population – too big, gradually reduce: family planning, world awareness

2. The agriculture/diet nexus – too much meat, energy, chemicals and

machines – could be far more “organic,” knowledgeable, hands-on

3. The built infrastructure: ecocities, ecotowns, ecovillages, often in

ecotropolis arrangements in their bioregions

4. Natural carbon sequestration – help nature in her normal ways of

Sequestering carbon into soils and sediments of the Earth.

The mental, psychological, spiritual

5. Generosity – we have to give back to the planet that has given us so

much, reverse over exploitation, over production and overconsumption and invest massively in the above 4 and finally getting serious about human rights an ceasing organized violence

6. Education intensely emphasizing the above five as if our lives

depended on it, which at least the lives of our grandchildren and all other species in the long term do

The 6 in a little more detail

Recently a number of prominent environmentalists, industrial designers, social critics and theorists, architects, concerned anti-climate change pundits and others in the general murmur have advocated making solutions for the climate change problem as easy as possible, as one such said, “as easy as falling off a log.” Another expression I’ve heard a number of times: “make it easy for people to pick the low hanging fruit” and I’ve responded publically to this train of thought saying, “Leave the low hanging fruit for the children. It’s time to be adults and face that this is not going to be easy.”

On the one hand we are told by the most knowledgeable that we’d better get moving soon and with full commitment, resolve, work and money invested or we’re doomed! Many of these same people counsel doing it kind of easy like. Now does that sound a little contradictory? It does to me. I think it is going to be more like Winston Churchill’s words for the Battle of Britain in the Second World War: “Blood, toil, tears and sweat.” Though far from such violent times – we can certainly hope, and before possibly facing a societal collapse should states be destabilized all over the word from any of a number of growing crises – it will nonetheless be one of those rare historic junctures where we will be called upon to make difficult choices and sacrifices for a greater later good.

Here’s what we are up against as the main strategic theatres of action and none of them are a cakewalk. Leave the low hanging fruit for the children – good practice before they have to learn to climb, make ladders and learn something about canning, baking, picking, irrigating, pruning, fertilizing, planting, and planning a healthy fruit tree.

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The beach at Rio de Janeiro


Population is said to be an insurmountable barrier due to religious beliefs and lifestyle traditions connected to a scarcity world in which disease and privation cull children leaving fewer to take care of the old for a few declining years. So such societies tend to have large families. And there are various religious strictures that say only God can decide if you are to have children or not, and on that point not even priests and imams are allowed to interpret otherwise. Then there is simply the habit of growing up with large families being a cultural habit, that like growing up with small families can be also a happy continuity satisfying a strong desire, that is merely cultural continuity.

Two interesting cases in the religious realm: in Iran during the Iran/Iraq War of the 1980s, Khomeini stepped into war planning on the bullish and not strictly Koranic idea that people should control output on the intentional large family side to help boost the population of soldiers should the conflict be an extended one or just to be a strong proud warring nation. A few years later, realizing the baby flood was upon them and noticing the investment and efforts needed to support rapid growth in population, the policy was reversed and in one of the most conservative of restrictive religious, political and social environments, sex education was made mandatory and government distributed condoms widely, television scripts were written and approved for evening viewing with characters engaging in, essentially, family planning education. I think Lester Brown put the story in all of his Plan B books seeking to help cure the world of its most intractable problems.

From my own experience in Italy: “Well,” I asked a couple locals, “what about Italy being a country with a slightly negative birth rate, yet you have the Vatican right here, heart of the Catholic world and heart of Catholic Italy,” “Oh the Pope – he’s a great guy,” was the essence of the usual answer, “But what does he know about having children – he’s celibate.”

Countless studies by the United Nations Population Agency and dozens of human health delivery services around the world have confirmed that by far the single most important approach to reducing family size is simply making reproductive information available to women: family planning education for women. Anyone against women’s rights ready to step forward? Well there are some but fewer all the time and that’s a hopeful sign.

I say that because population, all 7,383,272,989 of us as I get to this point in writing this article, says on the Internet, is as basic as it gets in human impacts due to sheer requirements to maintain human bodies in large numbers. Multiply that by production and consumption rates, then take into account the impacts of the particular kinds of agriculture and cities we run, how we help or don’t help nature in her natural means of carbon sequestration and the attitudes we have about all the above and we can see the starting point is population. However I disagree with those who say therefore that population is the most important of all major factors. I think it is more likely that all of them, all six I indicate here, simply cannot be omitted, are indispensable for success – as a whole system in its own right.

But finishing up with population before moving to agriculture, last summer I found some statistics on how much the mammals on the planet weigh – that’s right, their total biomass from shrews and voles to elephants and whales, including us of course. The information was staggering and comes from Vaclav Smil, a University of Manitoba scientist meticulous in his detail, depth and referencing. I reorganized his figures as a simple graph and to me it was the most frightening graph I have ever seen. I used it in a past newsletter and in all of my 13 public talks since then, in England, China, Colombia, Bolivia and Abu Dhabi. I’ll provide it again here for the sheer impact of such disproportionate numbers.

It’s a graph made up of small squares, each one representing one million tons of weight. The number of squares are in three categories. Of all that biomass humans are approximately 30.5% of the total and our food animals and pets 66.7%. Staggering information that less than 3% of all the mammal weight on the planet is wild and free anymore. And Smil’s figures are from 2002 in his book The Earth’s Biosphere: Evolution Dynamics and Change, MIT Press. It is stunning and profoundly depressing, to me anyway, that one species alone has appropriated more than 97% of all the primary photosynthetic product, work of the plants of the world to supply life to the animals that’s put to use by the mammals on the planet. And the figures today 13 years later are bound to be less, probably less than 2% free and wild. Amazing. All that production of energy from the sun destined to mammals and one species alone is the ultimate destination for its purposes. We appropriate that much for ourselves and all the thousands of other species of mammals get such a miniscule proportion. Just amazing.

Gandhi said there is enough for everyone’s needs but not everyone’s greed. Once probably true. A glance at the chart below however indicates not any more. We have to also deal with how many everyone actually is. The numbers have more than caught up with us and we are on the cusp of a lonely, lonely world.

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Chart representing the weight of mammals on the Earth by weight


The agriculture/diet nexus has deep roots too in tradition and local tastes developing over hundreds of years in very different places around the world. As with the population issue there are religious stricture here, too. I won’t elaborate on this subject about which I’m not an expert by any means, though broadly read. I’ll abbreviate it down to the reminder that we need to understand the vastness of its demands, not only for food but as they say fiber, as in clearing forests for grazing animals and turning wood into buildings, furniture, paper and so on.

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A Texas Porter House stake – 72 ounces


The built environment – cities, towns, villages – these are the largest creations of humanity and as we so often hear, they are the home to well over the majority of the human population. But if we include the towns and villages, there are very few people left living alone on the range or isolated in a separate farm house with associated facilities and no village neighbors. That is, it is probably more like 90%+ of us live in designed and built communities from the very small to gigantic. Energy consumption, product production and pollution emissions to air, water and land are immense with these infrastructures sprawling over the best agricultural land – of course cities would start where the food is best available. Only in regard to the vast extent of the land area involved in agriculture is there a larger disruption to land and seas – think of the dead zones or most major rivers with agriculture up stream.

The lessons here are clustered around the more compact, three-dimensionally integrated pedestrian ecocity, ecotown, ecovillage and metropolitan areas that could be recast as ecotropolises. Being the main topics set of Ecocity Builders, any but first time readers of this newsletter already know most of the problems ecocity design solve, problems averted.

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Built environment – one of infinite versions: same ecocity principles very different local ecological, social, economic and conditions of climate, weather, sun angles, temperature regime…


Natural carbon sequestration I first started contemplating when reading about Zimbabwe rancher Allan Savory’s way of herding cattle in tight packs eating and excreting their way across large grassland landscapes – as he says these compact herds are like gigantic agricultural machines powered by the sun for free. The dirt, poop and pee are mixed to perfection with seeds that have evolved and adapted for millions of years to passing through the innards of these big beasts and when the first rain comes, up erupts fast growing grasses, flowers, small brush in vast profusion – biomass and biodiversity at its regional best. Along comes the second rain and there is very little runoff. Instead the soil soaks up water, raising the water table and in some place streams and ponds return to formerly dry stream beds. Allan learned this from the way lions herd wildebeest and zebras, paralleled in North America in the way bison were herded by wolves. With grasslands quickly turned into sinks for both large increased sequestration of carbon in deeper roots and deeper soils, and with water tables rising where the technique is applied Savory points out that many millions of acres around the world can be turned into vast carbon sinks in this manner.

I believe he exaggerates greatly when he says – and he does – that such treatment of the grasslands and marginal deserts of the world could almost single handedly turn around the CO2 growth in the atmosphere. Similarly I heard a claim that organic agriculture could do the same thing. This last May at the Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa I heard a truly impressive lecture by master organic farmer Tom Newmark pointing out the destructive impact of chemical fertilizers, insecticides and herbicides on the community of soil organisms from microscopic to worms, and prairie dogs to the maximum productivity of the soil, both natural and farmed.

Everyone has their own favorite solution, but why so lonely with only mine? What about similar techniques also for forests, peatlands, sea weed forests and all the other surfaces of life working away under the sun with chlorophyll trying each organism to out produce his, her or its neighbor? The acreage involved in natural carbon sequestration into soils and sediments is the vast majority of the entire Earth’s surface. While other approaches can radically reduce demand, this one actively removes carbon from the entire atmosphere (and the waters too) and not just industrial smoke stacks. Then add to such a technique the larger whole systems strategy of 1. through 3. above and 5. and 6. below.

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Lion herding wildebeests

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Allan Savory’s cattle pass by his front porch, Zimbabwe


Here we move from the physical to the mental, psychological and spiritual. Generosity – we need to swamp the planet in it. We have been given this life on a stunningly gorgeous and infinitely varied planet. If we don’t invest seriously in the above four, and all at the same time – “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe,” John Muir – we will lose the incredible synergies of whole systems. Climate change is an opportunity to grasp that and the discovery will be, if the five Big Ones described here and above can be conceptualized and implemented, it seems to me, a winning strategy. And if that’s possible so is a cascading of other solutions connected in the good old whole systems patterns of organization: organs in organisms humming along smoothly.

Another dimension of generosity is investing in peace. There is nothing less generous that taking another’s life. In other words it’s time to put an end to war. Can this issue is placed in the middle of a discussion of survival of life on the planet? This is not the Battle of Britain or the nuclear war we narrowly dodged – so far. But climate change has an uncomfortable number of parallels with those gigantic conflicts. If we can’t somehow come to peace with each other, why do we think we could solve the climate change problem – and vice versa?

Wait a minute… No one has ever tried a united whole systems approach of the Big Six kind. How do we know it wouldn’t work? Never have we had better information and communications.

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Gandhi at number 10 Downing Street, London

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Richard trying to educate about ecocities at the ICLEI Future of Cities Conference, Incheon, South Korea


Number six is communication about those most important items that are not the low hanging fruit: the above Big 5. It is simply education as powerful as we can make it about all the above as if our lives depended upon it. Do they?

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Changes Toward Ecocities

Tina Huang : October 19, 2015 7:09 pm : Richard's blog :

I’m sitting in a restaurant late in the evening after giving a talk at the San Simon University of Cochabamba, Bolivia, student body 80,000. I’m amazed that what I’ve been seeing here and, just a few days earlier in Colombia, fits so well with what I was thinking about writing about for this issues of our newsletter, that is, good news: the progress toward ecocities in the last few years. Yes I know we are still – and rather massively – loosing ground to cars and asphalt in the developing world and the move toward seriously curbing greenhouse gasses in the United States and China is glacial. But some serious idea seeds and vigorous sprouts abound. I’m heartened by the overflow crowd for my talk an hour ago here at the University, and back in Bogota just three days earlier, the day I spoke there was “Car Free Day.” Thousands of mostly young people gathered in the main square in front of the Mayor’s office listening and dancing to reggae music; there must have been two bicycles for every three persons. I’d never seen so many bicycles and such an expression that – hey! – this is totally normal! A rare few carped it had taken longer to get about town. Of course! The city was transformed for the car driver, not the driver him or her self. Generally the citywide event sparked enormous enthusiasm for not having to deal with cars. Fresh air, blue sky, sunshine and no tension among giant hurtling steel beetles, no loud chaotic noise and acrid airs.

I’d been thinking for an “article” I’d simply submit a list of the random advances, maybe even alphabetically arranged to let others than me decide the order of importance or some sort of categorical arrangement, omitting the “t” in “the.” I also thought our editor, Kirstin Miller and others working in our office might like to brainstorm and add some of those inspiring tidbits or true grand advances. Meantime life has gotten a little more interesting so I feel constrained to write some of what I’m up to that also constitutes good news, that is, fits the theme.

I was speaking at the Meeting of the Americas Against Climate Change in Bogota hosted by the Mayor Gustavo Petro at the conference hall and facilities comprising part of the City Hall complex. These facilities are built around an interior plaza with big sculpture humming bird reigning over the enclosed gardens and pathways there. It was a real honor being invited to present in this place, first plenary talk on the second day of the conference, and the next day at the Bogota Archives, with an emphasis on ecocities in relation to waters. I could even say it was something of a dream come true in that I’d been working since the early 1980s trying to bring climate change into city planning, ultimately for promoting ecocities. I was trying to influence the political process that might actually end up in rezoning cities and towns for a full-on design revolution. The object of my affection at the time was Berkeley, California, my hope to give Berkeley the lead in confronting climate change.

In those days my climate change heroes, real Paul Revere scientists leading the charge, were Steven Schneider of Stanford and James Hansen of NASA’s Space Sciences Center. I was collecting their papers and funneling them to Berkeley Mayor Loni Hancock who was alert to the issue. She even had my ecocity zoning map on the wall next to her desk. The map was designed as a guide to help reshape cities for creek restoration, expansion of community gardens, orchards and parks and densification with diversification in the downtown, a West Berkeley Center, once called Ocean View and a South Berkeley Center, Lorin in the old days. That was around 1985.

Despite all efforts of a small non-profit – ours – few connected city layout and design to climate change. The idea didn’t spread for a long time. Strange considering cities are the largest things humans create… But now people are beginning to make that connection. Mayor Petro’s initiative, though a little unusual, is no longer unique. Music to my ears – people are at last beginning to catch on.

Falling in love with a mountain

Now, sitting in the above said restaurant in Cochabamba having a Huari, the local beer, I’m reflecting on Cochabamba and La Paz. I flew first to La Paz and arrived at 3:00am, was received gracefully by Reynaldo Cuadros of an NGO called Biosphera Dharma (the personal path in harmony with the biosphere) and was then driven through the dark narrow city streets to my hotel. The next day, with view to the surrounding country mostly obscured by buildings and a few clouds in the dark blue we went to the tallest building in that part of the city to visit a restaurant with a top floor view. I walked from the elevator into the room with floor to ceiling glass windows and have to admit I suddenly, reflexively gasped, and said, “Oh my God. What a beautiful mountain.” I’ll show you one of my photographs here in this article. It’s called Illimani. Suddenly there were two cities in my very short list of cities with the most spectacular relationship to geography in the world, or at least in my experience, this one, La Paz, and Rio de Janeiro. “Amazing,” I said. “What an absolutely amazing sight. I’m thunder struck.”

Never have I had so many back-to-back talks, tours and meetings with people of influence as in La Paz and Cochabamba – city mayors, senators, representatives to the national governments, professors, environmentalists, architects, city planners, biologists and hundreds of students. I found that officials in La Paz have already a polycentric city design model for their future city that fits with our “ecotropolis” and ecocity mapping concepts in the ecocity movement, and taking a ride almost the whole length of La Paz through the air in the Teleferico gondolas reinforced my sense that they are connecting together public transport with such a polycentric (ecotropolis) model for the city.

In Cochabamba Renaldo and I met with Mayor Humberto Sanchez of a district of the larger Cochabamba city, a smaller city called Secaba, which is already dedicated to building a model of ecocity development on 72 hectares on the edge of town, a project that aspires to be a full-on model of ecocity design. Also meeting with us was a crew of several others already on a design team to pursue that objective and the State Senators to the National Parliament Ciro Zabala and Carola Arraya. Says Ciro Zabala, the State Government has already allocated $100 million US for a project that could be at the center of the new ecotown, money for a knowledge city core for healthy science and technology and a financial engine for the ecocity project. The signs look awfully good. Such a project could become the ecocity university town, a school in a thorough-going ecocity design that I have long thought so needed.

Glaciers in retreat

In addition to the speaking, planning and politicing, I climbed to my first encounter with a glacier at about 16,000 feet on a mountain called Huayna Portosi and heard from my new friends that this and all the other glaciers of their country have been melting rapidly over the last two or three decades. The only ski lift in the country was on the adjacent slope to our hiking route. Now no snow. It’s closed. Looking out at that beautiful massive mountain Illimani, my first introduction to the Bolivian volcanoes resplendent in radiant white it was love at first sight. But hearing at the same time that the white was rapidly shrinking up and away, ever higher and smaller, it was a most difficult and heart breaking experience. “Were those glaciers I see over there descending their valley much farther in the past, the snowline much lower?” “Yes.” Enough said.

So now the race is on, between the absurd and the profound, one side the throw back to the days of mobility for it’s own sake and cheap thrills with no thought to the future, the car city, overmobility and reflexive desire for quick gratification in speed. On the other hand, most of what we stand for in calling for access by proximity: the shortest distance between points is designing them close together: that is, ecocity design, could make a profound positive difference, a rescue of the luminous mountain snows.

Oddly, the idea of the scattered city of people trying to get away from the city to the suburbs was actually the first wave of ecocity efforts, just severely mislead. I call it the “ecocity impulse,” the impulse to have the city and the country at the same time. The problem was the means of delivery: the car, gasoline, asphalt and concrete. Then there is the contradiction: that sprawl development covered over nature and drove it yet farther from the city rather than creating a natural way of living in the supposed (but now extripated) country. To those growing up in a world of suburbs (and gasoline addiction, paving paradise, air pollution, climate change, species displacement and extinction and grinding accidents costing over one million human lives a year and many more innocent bystander fatalities… Why not smaller footprint cities and just bicycling or walking out through close-in city limits and into real nature?

We know the mass of society is still on Plan A, the business as usual plan put forward by economists and those trying to maximize return on investment, the plan that sees infinite growth on a finite planet as ultimate measure of health and those who like Lester Brown have called for the Plan B in his books by that name that realize and take very seriously that we have to profoundly change our approaches. In that change, change toward ecocities can help lead us to understanding and building for limits to growth and design for the optimum built human environment and ultimately a future of opportunity and health for all, including the natural animals and plants.

Maybe Bolivia will be a breakthrough. I proposed four specific steps that might just do that, and there was considerable interest expressed in working vigorously toward actualizing such steps. I call the idea the World Ecocity Leadership Package.

  • Implementation in one or several cities the “polycentric” centers of development I learned were already writing into La Paz long term city plan, a mapping that looks approximately identical to our ecocity zoning maps in Ecocity Builders.
  • Publishing of my books in Spanish for the Spanish-speaking world in Bolivia within the next year. Sounds self-serving but I can’t help but note how much having books in print have helped spread the word and influence practice in China.
  • Establish an Ecocity University or College in a full-on ecocity designed community in Bolivia.
  • Make a powerful bid from a Bolivian city for hosting an International Ecocity conference, thus in three or for years, after much progress here, providing a world focus on ecocities in the land of celebrating – officially even – Mother Earth.

Now here below is my list to read and meditate on, alphabetically ordered as any attempt to order according to importance or where to put helpful effort first is just too complicated to break down. You, dear readers, might have some such positive changes you’d like to site. Send them in to me and I’ll add them to my list.

So, as a start, the changes in the right direction cited above are the beginning of my continued list below.


  • Abu Dhabi having started Masdar City and possibly we can encourage them to go for big solution rather than (apparently) getting stymied
  • Al Gore and Lester Brown having introduced the idea of a whole systems “plan” we could consider as ready and waiting and not looking like we are alone or presumptuous to think about it
  • Bigger Bay Ecotropolis idea shaping up to unite elevated compact pedestrian development with San Francisco Bay Area needs
  • Boredom in the suburbs
  • Building design with more rooftop and green wall features, bridges linking structures of pedestrian permeability
  • Car miles driven down in the US generally since 2005
  • Cars with complex components, not parts, so no young men build hot rods anymore
  • China and Korea using the term ecocity and eco-city commonly with partial understanding – a big start
  • City form: more people see density as a solution in developed world
  • Climate Change emergency getting clearer, with city structure at the base of solution so that most people will eventually discover the power of ecocity solutions…
  • Same for biodiversity collapse
  • Same for resources degeneration, energy addiction and squandering
  • Same for air and much water pollution
  • Same for paving land, covering farmland and natural habitat with paving
  • Same for wasted human time, money, and lives lost in automobile crashes in the car/sprawl infrastructure
  • Decision by David Eifler, University of California at Berkeley Architecture
  • Department Librarian to feature Richard Register’s work as exhibition there on anniversary of his book “Ecocity Berkeley” starting fall 2016
  • De-damming projects around the United States growing in number every year
  • “Ecocity” the term being used commonly and by government in China
  • “Ecotropolis” the term beginning to spread
  • Ecovillage membership in the Global Ecovillage Network passes 200 ecovillages
  • Energy conservation, renewables, solar and wind coming on strong
  • Eric Sanderson’s work in mapping, frank anti-car book: Tierra Nova
  • Ever improving theory
  • Friend of Richard Register, Joe Alcamo, now Chief Scientist for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change
  • Gentrification in centers (indicating popularity – and calling up the need for social/ecological as solutions seen together)
  • Good allies accruing through our conferences that we might be able to mobilize in some ways
  • Good start with ecocity standards and likely maturing and tuning to a major
  • advance in strategy regarding standards if we can take the lead
  • Idea of Natural Carbon Sequestration and the idea of a strategy to pursue this set of solutions
  • Interest in my next two books in China, maybe elsewhere
  • International Ecocity Conferences go on, with more bids for hosting very year
  • Internet making possible working as part of the world economy and also having small and medium sized communities to live in, adding enormous variety to life style choices
  • Jennie Moore’s deep contacts in “the (aspiring) greenest city in the world,” and base in The British Columbia Institute of Technology for ecocity projects
  • Kirstin Millers’s many contacts with UN and European agencies and big NGOs
  • Knowledge like Bill Rees’ (of the “ecological footprint”) insisting on holistic ecology informed perspective
  • Korea: the Cheonggyechon creek restoration
  • Korea: Sky Garden High Line take off repurposing a failure freeway as elevated bike and pedestrian route
  • More streetcar systems, other transit coming on stronger all the time
  • More bicycle paths, growing bicycle sub culture, Chinese separated bicycle paths People in the suburbs wanting to get to the vitality centers
  • More creek and shoreline restoration all over US, other countries
  • New York City’s High Line, a repurposed elevated rail line into bicycle and foot path
  • People exhibiting signs of not loving cars, anymore, like white to black through gray being about 95% of car colors signifying less fun, more of the dependence drudge factor
  • People making up for lack of enthusiasm for cars by buying brutish ones (admittedly that sounds contradictory, and styles pass, but this bigger car recent development is among the stupidest and people will catch some day soon)
  • Pope Francis’ new Encyclical and his work in general (other than promoting overpopulation)
  • Power to challenge cities to more fundamental changes when they get host responsibilities for International Ecocity Conferences increasing
  • Radical drilling in hostile environments, deep seas, tar sands etc. beginning to be understood as representing desperation for the last of the resource, not progress
  • Renewable energy projects coming on fast, Germany passes 50% mark
  • San Francisco Bay saved! The Bay Trail is now over half finished: bicycle and foot traffic only
  • Sidewalk cafes and parklets taking off
  • Simon Joss and his direct approach and analysis of standards as a stream of good thinking to be activated
  • Six Big Ones simplification based on proportionalizing problems and solutions – then prioritizing, then coordinating those solution components… Maybe call it Plan Z
  • Walking trails like the Bay Trail around San Francisco Bay about ½ complete now, and Humboldt Bay Trail between Arcata and Eureka, California
  • Youth not nearly as interested in cars in general

We can count some blessings!

And on and on……………………………. ………… …… …. … … .. .  .   .    .     .      .

Richard Register can be reached at

1. Humming bird at #47740B1

Humming bird reigns over the interior plaza of the City Hall complex of Bogota.


2 Car free day Bogota

Car free street in Bogota. In the whole city no private cars were supposed to move, and in fact I saw none, until, as planned, after sunset. The air over the entire city was unusually fresh, the hiss and rumble of traffic gone except for the occasional taxi and bus. Many streets were blocked off entirely, even to the taxis and off limits to the busses. Bicycles swarmed and collected at street locations and plazas and stopped for free music, bands, jugglers and dancing.

4. Glacier, Richard#477421B

I greet my first glacier, 16,500 feet above (rising) sea level.

5. Mayor agreeing t#4774253

Mayor Humberto Sanchez shakes my hand agreeing to proceed with working on an ecocity project adjacent his city of Sacaba, a sub city of Cochabamba, partnering with Ecocity Builders, second largest to Cochabamba in the Kanata region, sometime referred to as the Cochabamba region, 2 million inhabitants in the metro area. Sacaba itself has about 120,000 – approximately the size of Berkeley. I walked an open site on the fringe of the city with Reynaldo and Filipe

6. Mayor's louncheon

Ceremonial lunch for the 9th Seminario Kanata at the Tiquipaya Architectura Campus with Mayor of Cochabamba Jose Maria, in white sitting center, I’m in pink to the right and right of me is Reynaldo Cuadros with dark beard, the organizer of my tour and my translator for seven days, and also founder of the non-governmental organization (NGO) Biofera-dharma Foundation. The host organization was the Architecture College at the Tiquipaya Campus.

My first view of Illimani was from a tall building in La Paz. The city outskirts can be seen bottom left in the photograph.

My first view of Illimani was from a tall building in La Paz. The city outskirts can be seen bottom left in the photograph.

7. Bouganvillia tree

In the main plaza of Cochabamba a purple-pink bougainvillea vine growing up a trees has survived while its support tree has died decades ago, the vine turning into a free standing tree 200 years old.


A statue of Jesus Christ stand on a high hill overlooking Cochabamba below.

A statue of Jesus Christ stand on a high hill overlooking Cochabamba below.

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From Shangri-La to Baku and Back

Naomi Grunditz : May 27, 2015 6:04 pm : Richard's blog : Baku, Biodiversity, Multiculturalism, Nepal

Winding up my series, Part Three, on the recent conference “Toward a New Paradigm in Human Development” held in Baku, Azerbaijan, April 30, 2015

Richard Register

I picked up Lost Horizon at a small bookstore just before I left Kathmandu in 1995. The James Hilton yarn is famous for many in the Western World who never read it – or even heard of it – for introducing the timeless land of Shangri-La, a warm climate paradise sheltered behind the towering stone and ice teeth of the Himalaya mountains. Noting the book’s small size and reasonable 275 pages and knowing its popular almost mythic status, I thought it was just the entertainment for my flight out of Nepal and back to the world of my everyday affairs.

It was night at the airport, no posted sign of when our plane was to leave, though my ticket said departure in 45 minutes. Lightning was rippling through the dark beyond the mountains to the south, the height of the Rockies in the US, and shimmering off the luminous wall of the Himalaya range to the north – 15,000 feet higher than the Rockies. Interment sheets of rain were swirling about. Not a good sign.

I stood in the queue about 12 from the counter when about 50 people burst through the door and crushed me into the people in front of me, popping me off to the side like a bar of wet soap grabbed at a wrong angle. Their enormous bags on overloaded carts made me immediately think, “Are these people greedy export/import merchants, stunningly self-centered tourists or maybe furniture movers? Maybe desperate immigrants?” But that didn’t make sense; they had no fear in their eyes. In fact, aloof, superior and entitled they made no eye contact all. Ignored me and everyone else. My lesson learned, I shoved back in with the same technique a few places down the line.

Still no news about our plane two hours later. Then, with a rumor started by a stewardess we all surged forward, ran through a gap in the rain over the poorly lit runway, stuffed the plane to capacity, me worried about such a load of baggage, and took off into the rumbling sky. Over the Rocky-sized mountains and on the way to Delhi the ride smoothed out and I began reading the book – which started with desperate people crowding into airplanes attempting to leave a war torn similar part of the world. Well, coincidence I thought, I’d just been there.

In Lost Horizon four escapees find themselves on a plane going in the wrong direction, kidnapped, then crash landed just over a pass from Shangri-La. In that valley the towns and lamasery of a peaceful, creative society living in harmony among themselves, enjoying nature’s sheltered bounty. My job! Designing such a place is for fiction, but something get’s built and we definitely should head in that direction.

Scenes from the Frank Capra movie and covers for the novel. Note that in the cover on the upper right the publisher claims this was “The First Paperback Ever Published!”

Scenes from the Frank Capra movie and covers for the novel. Note that in the cover on the upper right the publisher claims this was “The First Paperback Ever Published!”

Conference in Baku

Now, zooming ahead 20 years and I’m flying back from Baku and a conference remarkably different from the others I generally attend. The main issue: international peace and stability through political approaches to a more peaceful world as the Old Order morphs into something not yet clearly seen. It was a conference of two parts, two days called “Building Trust in the Emerging World Order” featuring 37 former heads of state and “leading scholars and experts,” mostly from the Europe, Africa and Middle East region with a few from North and South America and South Asia. The second part, on the third day, was a conference on “A New Paradigm in Human Development” hosted by the World Academy of Art and Science. The first two days were hosted by the Nizami Ganjavi International Center, a non-governmental organization named for the country’s famous poet and funded by the Government of Azerbaijan under the guidance of President Ilham Aliyev.

The conference organizers put their mission this way:

2014 was a complicated year for global stability and human security. In a year where the number of refugees and internally displaced people reached its peak since the end of the Second World War, the world witnessed the continuation of conflict and violence. The rise of radical groups in Africa and the Middle East; the internationalization of the war in Syria; a crude conflict at the gates of the European Union in Ukraine; a growing divide between Russia, the European Union and the United States and its destabilizing consequences; an increase of the terrorist threat; the continued organized criminality in Latin America; and an overall escalation of global conflict and rhetoric. All these developments are bringing the current world order into question.


The objective: “…to debate the current trends in international relations and human security… to elaborate concrete steps for today’s leadership to overcome these divisions.”

With so many former heads of state there the conference represented quite a bank of political knowledge to say the least. I had a better idea how my focus on ecocities fit the third day. So for the first two I was mostly in learning, not teaching mode.

What stood out most for me were two things: First, general agreement that the Pax Americana world order with its dominant “Great State” was gradually fading and the next order only vaguely suggested.

Second, there was near unanimous fear and loathing for what the delegates saw Russia becoming under Putin, and not just his aggression in Ukraine but the disturbing fact of very high approval ratings for his policies throughout the Russian populace, reported to be around 85% in a number of newspapers, and broad hints of military acquisition of territories in other neighboring countries where a significant number of Russian-speakers live. That dominant theme of the first two days was expressed by former Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga who told me after her talk that her family departed the country just ahead of the torpedoes, not the German’s but the Russian’s trying to stop people from escaping their new sphere of influence as the Second World Wars was ending. Her parents were naïve idealists she told me and left late because they were convinced the League of Nations would broker a just peace. Didn’t happen. Now, she said, Russia wants to regain its status as a great power, similar to the way Western Europeans decided to unite in a larger European Union.

But the situation is radically different, she said before the assembled audience, in that the European states joined voluntarily and the Russian Empire called the Soviet Union was assembled by military conquest against the will of the citizens of the subjugated countries. She was being not just a little ironic when she said the theme of the conference – building trust – required actions to justify trust. The Russians are killing people, hundreds of them every week, she emphasized.

At first I didn’t have much to say about what ecocities might contribute to solving such highly charged problems of outright violence between leaders and peoples. A few points in discussion were interesting, such as the broadly shared prediction that in the next world order China and to a lesser degree India, would play large roles while the U.S., becoming more energy independent due to fracking for oil and gas and rapidly increasing coal mining, would retreat significantly from the world stage because it would be losing interest in the energy resources of the Middle East. Everyone thought this a very good thing since much of the instability of that region and much of Africa was precipitated by the US invasion of Iraq for the non-existent “weapons of mass destruction.” A person in the audience made the comment that the US “made some mistakes in Iraq.” The director of the Alexandria Library in Egypt, Ismail Serageldin, immediately retorted that there was no mistake about it. It was carefully planned and executed.

Another random item and one of the few concrete proposals: why not a Mediterranean regional development bank? To finance the building of what, however, was left up in the air. I’ll return to that idea shortly.

Nature’s multiculturalism

On the third day I was assigned to a panel and given seven minutes like everyone else to make a statement. “Everyone else” included Ms. Vike-Freiberga and former President of Bolivia Jorge Quiroga as well as our host that day, Garry Jacobs, President of the World Academy of Art and Science. Quiroga and I chatted for about half an hour at the Baku Airport, by the way, while waiting at the VIP room for our boarding passes to leave the country. He told me he loves climbing in the Andes. Fifteen years ago, he observed, he used to put on his crampons – those attachable spiky cleats climbers strap onto their boots for ice – 800 feet lower on the mountains. Global heating.

Everyone of the approximately 40 at the day three conference were presenters. No space was made explicit in topics selected to specifically address urban issues, or even ecological ones, though certainly city issues are extraordinarily consequential in terms of impacts in the development process, both negative and positive impacts… depending on particulars, the big particular implying vastly different outcomes: are you going to design and create an environment for people or cars?

The topic of my panel was multiculturalism and associated problems and solutions. With the influx to Europe of thousands of refugees a month from poverty, overpopulation and increasing consumption pressures on resources as well as immigration from the four years old civil war in Syria, religious and tribal wars in North, Central and East Africa and around the Middle East, not to speak again of in Ukraine, many Europeans were positively unnerved. Maybe insights from ecology as the study of processes in nature might be helpful, I thought.

I was noticing almost every religion and many philosophical and economic theories believe things can only be healthy and happy when “everybody believes as I do.” The world for the Shiites or Sunis today, this Protestant group or that Catholic one 400 years ago, or Pax Capitalistica or when Russia regains its vast and proud empire in the future, and so on.

Ecology, that is nature, begs to differ, and here is the dynamic: In nature things thrive in high biodiversity. Shouldn’t mutually respecting cultures? The more the merrier. Why that dynamic balance in nature? Because no organism or species takes more than it can eat at a sitting or store up for one winter. Plus, even though each organism’s strategy for surviving is to have many more offspring than manage to survive, all the other participating individuals and species are putting the breaks on each other – limits – preventing any from far exceeding “carrying capacity” of an environment. Predators, diseases, starvation due to overconsumption due to overpopulation tightens the limits on violators of the natural consumption limits.

Not so with people, who have killed off or pushed off into remote corners almost all of the predators, controlled most of the diseases and obscured and postponed while amplifying the stresses of overpopulation by employing machines and vast quantities of energy to squeeze ever more food and other commodities and products out of the natural environment as if the resource base was infinite or ever growing – which it isn’t. Maybe simple agreements or in a pinch “sanctions” from the international community could restrain way out of hand excesses? In any case, the basic mechanism, which is quite common anywhere a peaceful society goes about its business, is values held by all that could be said to restrain greed and live and let live the various differences that don’t unduly exploit others. A few billion people live that way. Ways need to be found to bring the rouges back into decent civilization, to say convincingly to them, “It’s OK, don’t worry, we can all do quite wonderfully together.” Of course that’s more easily said than done. Maybe it needs a few new ideas…

With similar reasoning I offered my panel the idea that multi-specesism not only exists but seems to rule in healthy evolution. Might this not be a major lesson modeled in nature that humanity aught to take seriously? It would be another idea to boost the tactics of the Gandhi’s among us.

I said I personally very much simply enjoy the rich mix of people and cultural patterns in the part of my home town, Oakland, California where I live – about 1/3 white, 1/3 black and 1/3 Asian. With a little mutual respect, no problem and lots of virtuous vitality for all.

The second idea I thought might help was simply that an occupation for saving the day – solving climate change, species extinction, mineral extraction to exhaustion, social discontent unto war and other problems – might just be to start focusing on building a better civilization, literally: start building ecocities. That’s not my idea, the occupation to distract from gathering tensions and hatreds and provide a very positive thing to be doing for the common benefit of everyone. It was suggested by one of the planners for the 11th International Ecocity Conference coming up this October in Abu Dhabi. At a dinner between planning sessions in Barcelona in early 2014 one of those present, Khaled Tarabieh, suggested ecocity building was just such a vehicle for very positive changes. He thought it might create a positive common project for the warring tendencies in his Middle Eastern region, something practical and “larger than any of us” to advance a new harmony.

The notion reminded me of a famous psychological experiment organized by Muzfer Sherif who is regarded as one of the founders of Social Psychology. It was called the “Robbers Cave Experiment” because it was held at a boy’s school called Robbers Cave. To test the theory that team competition settling into general ways of living and thinking might further concord or disharmony, the small school was divided into two groups of students encouraged to compete in many ways. As things progressively degenerated into outright hostility Dr. Sherif and his teachers who were part of the experiment arranged for various social events. These just exacerbated hostilities, providing opportunities for conflict. But when the hungry students had to get their food truck out of a rut and push it to repairs with lots of hard effort, the cross-team relations improved markedly. They all then had a common hard-earned success, a shared positive work experience. Plus they got to enjoy the fruits of their labor.

Though the experiment was criticized for being a tiny sample and made up of people with rather minor and only recently experienced reasons for conflict, and done among adolescents not adults, it posed the possibility that working together can create a shared sense of success benefiting all and contributing to more harmonious relations. Not that most of us haven’t experienced this in many ways anyway, but a controlled experiment adds some weight to the notion.

Could ecocities serve in this manner? Meantime they would be doing a good deal to solve the problems mentioned in any case. The Europeans are faced with influxes of refugees from war and poverty on the south and east and are more than a little perplexed by the future and, it seemed obvious struggling with what to do about it. The new regional bank I’d heard suggested, if it were to attach to the building of ecocities might well provide the kind of common labor to unite. If people came to understand dealing with the largest of humanity’s creations – our cities – as if they were large enough to be also a positive rather than negative influence on environment, and in some cases, human peace and harmony, any bank could join in providing the credit for an extremely broad range of “green jobs” required by the best of city-building enterprise.

More covers and publicity shots for the 1937 Frank Capra movie.

More covers and publicity shots for the 1937 Frank Capra movie.

Today’s Lost Horizon

Retuning for a moment to “Lost Horizon” and the very reason for Shangri-La as described by the High Lama of that lifeboat sliver of the larger world civilization, we may see parallels with the global scene today, and especially with the kind of worries Europe is descending into as evidenced at the conference on “trust” and a changing World Order.

The hero of “Lost Horizon” is a man named Conway, an Englishman weary of war and conflict, apparently, for starters because of the First World War in which he participated and which changed him forever turning a gifted mind and man of action movie stuff into something of a brooding philosopher. He was marooned in Shangri-La, almost a prisoner of the endless high and remote mountains, and is now conversing with the High Lama who is talking about the new war just dawning. We have to remember that the book was written barely a decade after World War I and as the Nazi’s were coming to power in Germany. It has a decidedly Euro-centric perspective and some would say is somewhat racist as well with the elite in the remote valley almost all of European descent and culture even though the tale is set in Tibet. But it’s entertaining and more interestingly, it posits a world in trouble and some efforts for dealing with it.

The High Lama is explaining what Shangri-La has to offer Conway if he doesn’t try the probably anyway fatal effort to “escape”:

Our order knows only silken bounds. To be gentle and patient, to care for the riches of the mind, to preside in wisdom and secrecy while the storm rages without – It will all be very pleasantly simple for you, and you will doubtless find great happiness.” …Conway sought to reply, but could not, till at length a vivid lightning-flash paled the shadows and stirred him to exclaim “The storm… this storm you talk of…”

“It will be such a one, my son, as the world has never seen before. There will be no safety by arms, no help from authority, no answer in science. It will rage till every flower of culture is trampled, and all human things are leveled in a vast chaos… Do you say I am mistaken?”

Conway answered: “No, I think you may be right. A similar crash came once before, and then there were the Dark Ages lasting five hundred years.”

“The parallel is not quite exact. For those Dark Ages were not really so very dark – they were full of flickering lanterns, and even if the light had gone out of Europe altogether, there were other rays, literally from China to Peru, at which it could have been rekindled. But the Dark Ages that are to come will cover the whole world in a single pall; there will be neither escape nor sanctuary save such as are too secret to be found or too humble to be noticed. And Shangri-La may hope to be both of these. The airman bearing loads of death to the great cities will not pass our way, and if by chance he should, he may not consider us worth a bomb.

Well if that isn’t an apocalyptic vision I don’t know what is. And it largely came true when the Second World War was launched only six years after the book’s publishing date – or even earlier if you consider the warm up to World War II with Japanese aggressions in East Asia, Franco’s war in Spain and Mussolini’s in Ethiopia. What it may bring to mind now is this: could the perfect storm of environmental problems and rapidly evolving social/cultural/political conflicts, that perhaps especially the Europeans see growing on their south and east, come together for some unprecedented world catastrophe of a scale not so different from the one the High Lama predicted for which Shangri-La aspired to be a refuge and spark of renewal? If the resource base of the whole planet relative to high human population and average consumption rates and the viability of its climate system and biosphere are now in question, is Hilton’s fantasy possibly a timely if also dated warning to be examined all over again?

And onward…

Since we were talking about paradigms related to development I felt it was in order to explore the paradigm concept itself in our third day of conferencing. So I noted there seemed to be a set of paradigms very broadly embracing many other paradigms all at once. In addition it struck me that the particular three of them I offered, if clearly understood, might provide new perspectives on all the rest. They might help lead to crucial improvements such as radically improving our cities, dealing with extremely high human populations stressing resources, shifting from high energy massively mechanized agriculture to organic, reversing climate change and global heating and, perhaps most basically of all, confronting the generosity/greed dilemma that produces extreme exploitation and over extraction and consumption on a limited planet.

I proposed an outline of these three over-arching paradigms in my second of these three articles for our newsletter that followed this outline. In abbreviated form, here they are:


  1. Old Paradigm: Infinite growth
  • competition and consciousness evolving, dominating
  • up to and including the 20th century
  • slogan: “more and more and more”
  1. Transition Paradigm: respect limits
  • cooperation and conscienceness evolving, dominating
  • approximately the 21st century
  • slogan: “shrink for prosperity”

4.3. Forever Paradigm: compassionate creativity

  • coevolution of conscienceness and the biosphere
  • approximately the 22nd century and into the deep future
  • Slogan; “always creating”

Overall guidance:

“Once we accept our limits we can go beyond them.”

~  Albert Einstein


“There is plenty for our need but not enough for out greed.”

~ Mohandas Gandhi


“…unless we exhaust our natural base of support and then there will not be enough even for only our needs. Time to be careful.”

~  Me!


Whether these ideas move forward in a fashion and with a speed that can contribute effectively to our human and environmental problems is far from certain. It’s debatable in addition that many other people beyond our ecocity circles will take the whole pattern as laid out in these three articles seriously. There is even the question as to whether they make sense in a more real sense. The best I can do is try.

I’ve heard the criticism that presuming to deal with such large problems is something of a flight of a presumption and one lost in fantasy at that. But I think of it as not much more than normal Earth citizenship we can all exercise to some meaningful degree. So I’m far from convinced of that criticism’s validity and believe each of us has the capacity to think about all these things and…try.

More book covers, a movie publicity shot and the author, James Hilton himself, lower left. Lost Horizon must be one of the world’s most reprinted and colorfully represented novels.

More book covers, a movie publicity shot and the author, James Hilton himself, lower left. Lost Horizon must be one of the world’s most reprinted and colorfully represented novels.

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The Paradigms We Live In: Nature’s paradigms and ours

Naomi Grunditz : April 27, 2015 8:35 pm : Richard's blog : Dimensional pairs, Paradigms, War

Richard Register

The following essay appeared as two parts in the monthly newsletter of the California educational non-profit Ecocity Builders, the first for their April, 2015 edition and the second for their May, 2015 edition with two separate titles, one for each month.

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   Begin part two, May 2015, Ecocity Builders Newsletter

~  · ~

For my contribution to our Ecocity Builders newsletter last month I wrote about some of my then current thinking on paradigms, mentioning that I’ve been thinking a good deal about the subject in preparation for attending and speaking at the “New Paradigm for Human Development” conference in Baku, Azerbaijan organized and hosted by the World Academy of Art and Science.

What a difference two weeks make. I’m not the flighty sort but I’ve had some significant additions and some change in thinking in a rather short time. Now, something more needs to be added: pre-human paradigms, and also, a perspective I think shows three great stages of development that could be thought of as the three great paradigms humans participate in – in the past, present and future.

Of course I believe ecocities have a place at the fulcrum of needed changes right in the middle of whatever paradigm humanity adopts in our general extended present. But ecocities are still only one of several very crucial elements in such a paradigm that could help us into an experientially rich, and as they say, “sustainable” future. More preferably I’d suggest that future be called, rather simply, “ecologically healthy,” the base condition for continued happy evolution of society and nature alike. We are alive after all; biology is our basis; therefore I prefer “ecocity” to “green city” or “sustainable city,” ecology being the study of life in its countless dynamic interconnections. In this second installment, look for “exaggerated gamesmanship” as a key concept introduced in the first installment.

Related side note: the Chinese government leaders these days declare they are dedicating themselves to creating an “ecological civilization.” I wish my own government would do that, which would be an open door to ecocity contributions. “Civilization,” the term itself, is based on the Latin for “city,” which shows you just how open such a door should be. Too bad that for the time being the Chinese are still so strong on trying to make cars a big part of that civilization – a major contradiction, but with luck, that element in their paradigm will change.

What again is a paradigm? A matrix of thinking and acting accepted by an individual or collection of people. We can have what amount to our own personal paradigms. Group paradigms can run from those of a small cluster to perhaps the whole world population. At any level a paradigm is generally “what’s going on,” how things happen based in our thinking that counts most. But also, paradigms regulate what we let into our consciousness as well, what or whom we pay attention to or stonewall, that reinforces our reality, and what is sometimes even jokingly called, when the paradigm is one held by many people, “consensus reality.”

Einstein – as seen in a Monterrey, California “head shop” window. Here is where I ran into his quote, “Once we accept our limits we can go beyond them.” Richard Register photo (no designer attribution on the poster)

Einstein – as seen in a Monterrey, California “head shop” window. Here is where I ran into his quote, “Once we accept our limits we can go beyond them.”
Richard Register photo (no designer attribution on the poster)

Is a particular paradigm really real? Well we all hope so if it is ours. And rather conspicuously, some seem healthier than others – to say the least! Some lead to enlightenment (or for the purist, almost there) while others can lead to horrors of violence and destruction.

Similarly, some social/cultural “myths” encapsulate – or try to – the essence of our world. In this sense our Big Myths are stories dramatizing our Big Paradigms. For most cultures our creation myths are the foundation for pretty much everything. Some people don’t believe in them but the great majority of a “people” often do, especially where a single religion presides over a large landscape. Creation myths tell us where we come from, where we are going and what we are supposed to do in the meantime, which is saying a great deal indeed. They often lead into an after life where we are punished or rewarded for our conduct here on dear old Earth: in Heaven or Hell or in some Valhalla or Happy Hunting Grounds. Some such grand cultural myths posit returning in some form for a second chance, a third, a forth…

What is particularly powerful about creation myths is the fact that they are built around a story line that seems prototypically human, the gods or God in them are human but more so. We can see ourselves living such a myth, identifying with the characters. These myths are not just outlines of what we are supposed to embrace or avoid and manifest or destroy, they are all about me and my family, friends and associates, my competitors and antagonists. We can place ourselves in their action. These myths are living paradigms with a story line.

Evolution’s pattern and where it reverses, then advances again

What has changed in my think is this that follows, but first, why the change? I’ve been teaching a class in ecocities for the past two weeks at Maharishi University of Management in sleepy, cozy Fairfield, Iowa – except when reality rumbles through about 20 times a day in the form of a gigantic Burlington Northern unit train owned by Warren Buffett loaded with averaging around 130 hopper cars heaping full of black coal that’s being burned in about that same immense volume and time span at the various ends of the branching tracks, transferred cross country from Wyoming into the atmosphere at points eastern, then to circle the globe as CO2 and other chemicals and gasses for months, some for decades. But that is a whole other (if related) story.

I prepared a seventh presentation, a new one, in this series of lectures for my third engagement there in Iowa, one dealing with how paradigms fit our college level class on ecocities. From conversations with teachers and students, new ideas emerged.

I’ve seen cities as a powerful step in evolution not just of ourselves and our individual and social consciousness but in the physical trajectory of evolution from “Big Bang” to hydrogen scattered through vast expanses of space, to condensation and formation of stars from that hydrogen, then planets from the elements created in stars, then life from chemicals on planets, then consciousness from life among the chemicals, of the universe. In other words we embody a phase of evolution, new in the swath of billions of years (though life may exist elsewhere too). This observation I got from Teilhard de Chardin and Paolo Soleri 50 years ago and the sequence has been corroborated and embraced by cosmologists that use astronomy, math and physics as their main tools. What Teilhard and Paolo noticed about this set of changes is a pattern they called “miniaturization/complexification,” the two phenomenon inextricably intermingled and happening together through time. It is educational that “complexification” remains rejected by Spell Check to this writing, that in other words, still most people can notice, some even recite the evolution sequence without explicitly noticing the essence of the pattern itself, much less applying it to our current everyday lives.

But certainly in our everyday lives that pattern is actualized, retarded or reversed by, for one thing, the way we build cities towns and villages as flat, scattered constructions. If stars, then planets, then life, then consciousness has evolved in steps toward ever greater miniaturization/complexification, which I prefer to contract to “miniplexion,” then our cities with the advent of cars are headed in exactly the opposite direction: they became giants covering vast areas of land, displacing farm and nature and consuming massive amounts of materials and energy. They’ve degenerated to zones of sameness, the simplicity of endless repetition of form and function in the grids and “dead worms” layout of vast suburban developments sprinkled with franchise restaurants and outlets, big box stores, freeways and parking facilities and common experience of guzzling fuel in epic quantities while expending large fractions of lives stuck in mind-simplifying traffic jams.

Why this counter evolutionary pattern? Largely because cars took over in the early years of the 20th century and they are big, weigh a lot and go fast: they are about 60 times the volume of a human when standing still and take up even more space when in motion, weigh approximately 30 times as much as your average human and in normal operation move about 10 times as fast. This has created our behemoth sprawled cities whose residences, shops and offices share few walls, floors and ceilings with each other and fail to share their “waste” heat and cooling energy while scattering things such that recycling is inefficient. The whole thing is powered by great rivers of oil flowing out of the Earth and into our vehicles as gasoline and diesel and thence into the atmosphere to join Warren Buffett’s 20 times 130 hopper cars of coal a day (3,600 cars) passing through Fairfield plus CO2 and other gasses, soot and aerosols from all the other human sources which make Burlington Northern’s contribution look small.

As Soleri pointed out way back 50 years ago when I met him in 1965 the more three-dimensional city was the compact much smaller city by almost any measure other than its density, and that with a great deal of diversity in small areas – complexity as another way of looking at it – everything could be close together in the city that used the model of complex living organisms as some kind of guidance.

I call this the “anatomy analogy:” cities like complex living organisms. It pays to pay attention. The more we build with this as a clear guidance the more likely we will have ways of living efficiently enough to be harmonious with nature, considerate enough to live within an “ecological footprint” that does not degrade the rest of the living fabric – the biosphere – of our planet.

That connection when I mention it in my talks – evolution to city design and layout – has received a ho-hum response or complete disbelief as too “far out” for most people. Connecting city planning issues to bicycles, recycling, community gardening, solar passive architecture and energy conservation, public transit and even the value of “mixed use development”… All that is just fine and gaining credibility and adherents steadily. That’s some progress. But enough?

Evolution’s paradigms, followed by ours

But now, let’s look at evolution’s paradigms. What struck me thinking about paradigms, preparing for my new presentation at Maharishi University, was the notion that maybe not just people but all living things and even the inanimate universe are and have been caught up in patterns that look and act much like paradigms. The sequences of events might not have seen consciousness in the universe in the early billions of years but patterns defining actions and reactions with recorded lag times called momentum and inertia, products and patterns that remain to influence the future, would have a rough parallel with paradigms in human consciousness and society.

Maybe there have been four big paradigms: the Physics Paradigm, the first big paradigm. Then the explosion of the starts seeding the universe with the heavy elements, creating the planets, comets, asteroids and such, the Chemistry Paradigm based on the full range of the periodic table of the elements, the second big paradigm. Then the advent of life on our “small” planet, the Biology Paradigm, the third big paradigm.

The Earth and moon, around 3 billion years ago. Nature’s Chemistry Paradigm, wherein the heavier elements cooked up in early generation stars create chemistry, something new in the universe, when planets, moons, comets, asteroids, dust, gasses and other materials gather and spin in space and define natures second great paradigm. (From Time Life Magazine’s book, “The World We Live In,” 1952)

The Earth and moon, around 3 billion years ago. Nature’s Chemistry Paradigm, wherein the heavier elements cooked up in early generation stars create chemistry, something new in the universe, when planets, moons, comets, asteroids, dust, gasses and other materials gather and spin in space and define natures second great paradigm.
(From Time Life Magazine’s book, “The World We Live In,” 1952)

So far so good – or at least I think it sounds fairly clear, aka “good.” So what to say of the paradigm of life giving rise to consciousness in the universe? The Consciousness Paradigm, the fourth big paradigm?

Sorry but here comes another made-up word: conscienceness. And I’ll suggest three successive all-encompassing, while they dominate, paradigms, that last of which, not yet commenced, might continue essentially forever, or perhaps lead into some other reality, some might conclude “spiritual” or “noospherical” (the biosphere’s collective consciousness, to be explained more later) or maybe completely unpredictable. Here’s my outline on all that:

The Conscienceness Paradigms, being something like overlapping subdivisions of the fourth paradigm in terms of the basic paradigms of the universe. In fact it would just be a more inclusive term for the Consciousness Paradigm, designed to include both consciousness and conscience:

4.1. Old Paradigm: Infinite growth

  • sum total of life evolving
  • competition and consciousness evolving, dominating
  • “Star Wars Myth” (from my last installment, with more below)
  • up to and including the 20th century
  • gift economics then capital economics in human exchange; within capital economics capitalist vs. socialist economics
  • slogan: “more and more and more”

4.2. Transition Paradigm: respect limits

  • life evolving but changing in very important ways
  • cooperation and conscienceness evolving, dominating
  • we are always emerging, creative
  • approximately the 21st century
  • capitalist + socialist economics
  • slogan: “shrink for prosperity”

4.3. Forever Paradigm: compassionate creativity

  • coevolution of conscienceness and the biosphere
  • creativity and compassion forever
  • with conscienceness firmly established
  • approximately the 22nd century and into the deep future
  • dynamic capital (not capitalist) economics
  • Slogan; “always creating”

Overall guidance:

“Once we accept our limits we can go beyond them.” ~Albert Einstein

We somehow missed that overall guidance in the old paradigm, not listening to Einstein, but I think the reason was that our habits of survival were dominantly from life’s long, long pattern of “survival of the fittest” and the dominance of the competitive over the cooperative, though the cooperative was always also there in the gamesmanship of staying alive to reproduce in evolution, perhaps strengthening over time and becoming quite strong in human societies when they embraced “civilization” with thousands of people involved in one paradigm or another while building enormously complex and often stunningly beautiful cultures and horrifying destructive, gory, glorious, disgusting wars.

What I’d like to suggest now is that consciousness was becoming ever more powerful and introspective and extrospective (exploring our world) as life evolved ever more complex organisms. All life forms in the Biological Paradigm do produce and always have produced far more numerous offspring than survive to reproduce, which Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace made a big deal of: nature red in tooth and claw – but also surviving by delivering services in cooperative exchanges, such as the bee delivers to the flower by fertilizing it, the flower providing nectar and pollen in return. That’s why Darwin and Wallace said not the most strong, violent and greedy to consume and control everything, but the most able to fit into the dynamically balanced ecosystems, from the local to global whole biosphere level: survival of the fittest.

We might consider conscience to begin evolving in first simple then more complex ways, say as patterns of care for young, or even maybe impulsive, one might conclude genetically “hardwired” or “instinctive” drive to deliver services while harvesting the requirements of maintaining lives, each and every organism. Naturalist Edward O. Wilson has even posited that life forms exhibits, and very conspicuously he says if we but notice, a desire for “affiliation” with other different life forms in addition to attraction to members of their own species. “Affiliation” is his attempt to sound more scientific than the soft and cuddly “affection” but that’s I’m sure what he means: real cross species desire to know and get close to… if not too dangerous, those fascinating others.

So a particular kind of consciousness began arising with the more self-feeding and self-defending kind that could, as developed most highly in humans, to be known as conscience. It’s deep origin probably has a lot to do with the “identity factors” behaviorist psychologist Konrad Lorenz noticed seemed to be part of the imprinting process going on in the various birds he was living with and experimenting with. With higher levels of consciousness, these kinds of thoughts or unconscious processes of the mind added up to some behaviors that best are categorized as ethics, morals and sense of justice, generosity and compassion. Not just self-feeding, but feeding offspring, building and sharing shelter and taking defense responsibilities alone or with mate or larger numbers of the same species. Cooperating with other species in symbiotic relationships would count too. Eric Weiner in his insightful and often hilarious world-roving quest for understanding happiness called The Geography of Bliss has this intriguing contribution to this line of reasoning: “Neuroscientists, meanwhile, believe they have located the part of the brain linked with altruism. To their surprise it turns out to be a more primitive part of the brain than initially suspected – the same part associated with our cravings for food and sex. That suggests we are hardwired for altruism and not just faking it.”

Would it be a stretch then to say at a certain point a healthy conscience was co-evolving with ever-higher consciousness, and starting fairly early on in evolution?

There are other dimensions of consciousness, such as creativity, which reflects in us what is happening in the universe as it evolves new forms and processes in its own evolution, evolution being creative, a pattern more and more physicists are calling “emergence.” Among humans, it may be that such creativity has to be careful these days not to create dangerous, damaging things, such for example as car cities rather than ecocities.

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….

Whether what we build and make is creative or destructive in ecological and evolutionary terms brings us to the Stars Wars Myth again, a story or paradigm assuming and promulgating the notion that only when we have won and everyone in the universe is like us could there ever be peace, and since that seems unlikely, the struggle to exterminate the enemy, and he us, is the eternal fate of consciousness evolving. Most religions and strong political and economic dogmas behave like and believes “only if everyone believes as I do can peace be achieved.” But what if the more highly evolved consciousness, called conscience, noticed that nature thrived in diversity, not monoculture uniformity? What if altruism accessed its deep neurological roots? In fact, back to ecological insights, could the world be reduced to one species of organism and hope to see that one grand victor alive, maybe humans living on machine-created “food” from ground up rocks? Could life then survive at all? It seems the more the merrier in ecology and evolution, certainly the richer the choices and relationships in life.

Star Wars battle scene – good clean fun or a grand paradigm curtain call (hopefully). Humanity’s first big paradigm was all about more and more and more. It worked for evolution as individuals of all species reproduced and “struggled” for survival. But should humans continue this pattern? (From the Internet)

Star Wars battle scene – good clean fun or a grand paradigm curtain call (hopefully).
Humanity’s first big paradigm was all about more and more and more. It worked for evolution as individuals of all species reproduced and “struggled” for survival. But should humans continue this pattern? (From the Internet)

The reality isn’t so fun. Hungry refugees lining up for food in a town near Damascus, Syria. This image must represent one of the most fantastically devastated scenes in history, and happening almost right now as failing states spread throughout the Middle East and Africa. Can evolution go on much longer without conscience taking over from consciousness? Should we insult war and call it disgusting? (From the San Francisco Chronicle, April 2, 2015)

The reality isn’t so fun. Hungry refugees lining up for food in a town near Damascus, Syria. This image must represent one of the most fantastically devastated scenes in history, and happening almost right now as failing states spread throughout the Middle East and Africa. Can evolution go on much longer without conscience taking over from consciousness? Should we insult war and call it disgusting?
(From the San Francisco Chronicle, April 2, 2015)

Naomi Klein, known for her impeccably researched, referenced and righteous attacks on the violent excesses of capitalism’s extreme side, The Shock Doctrine, has noticed in her new book that socialism’s record of damage to the planet, and in particular the climate system – and climate change is Klein’s emphasis in that book – is almost as bad as capitalism’s and if socialism had been more successful in promoting its economics agenda, she implies, it would have been just as damaging as capitalism, perhaps worse. That second book is called This Changes Everything. Clearly something needs to snap us out of our old mindsets and – she doesn’t quite say this but I do – get us into a new paradigm. If this the old battles of one side against the other make little sense, and though there are differences, say between a lot more taxes and regulation on one side and a lot less on the other, can we just dance a little and enjoy ourselves more? Could the revolution be more like Emma Goodman insisted: “If I can’t dance I don’t want to be part of your revolution.”

That is, can we embrace the active difference, be different, accept the back and forth competing but not get greedy and overwrought by it all? I’m back now at my “exaggerated gamesmanship” from the first of these two installments to our newsletter. I’m also suggesting something as simple in human affairs as something Klein mentions in that first book, “decent capitalism,” in which moderate taxes and regulations and spending for the common good benefit all – why bother fighting? Is decent socialism exactly the same thing as decent capitalism? Literally I mean, right in the middle between the poles favored by right and left, maybe oscillating back and forth a little but not enough to bring on destruction and death?

But as Barry Goldwater said campaigning for US President in 1963, “If you are in the middle of the road you get hit by traffic going both ways.” That’s defining out of existence cooperative negotiation and advocating the Star Wars Myth. To emphasize the exaggeration of the game of right/left economic politics, he was also famous for saying, “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.” One might reasonably ask, “Whose definition of liberty?” too. And, just how extreme do you intend to get while getting people used to the idea that extremism is OK? Humanity should only get as extreme as that we don’t over-exploit one another and nature, that we manage to live in a harmonious balance.

And I remind us again that ecology and evolution don’t do it in the way of exterminating angels. It pays to pay attention, if not for any other reason than the darkly threatening admonition that “nature bats last.” Speaking of sports, perhaps when thinking of competition getting out of hand, maybe the immense amount of time, human lives ticking away watching sports, absorbed in overly competitive business banter, talking about people who are different in some creepy or otherwise confusing likely misunderstood way, is a big waste of valuable time needed to think about, study really, and face our present crises with knowledge, honed skills, creativity and a big dollop of respect for the lessons of nature’s immense diversity of living players.

Are we the gods we’ve been waiting for?

In all this, identity, a very important mental exercise, with the powers of the universe or with God is worth thinking about. Humans have seemed to have identified their better or more powerful and dramatic selves with the powers of God or the gods. When wondering where it all came from, there was God the Creator, or maybe the Big Bang and the continuing creative forces in the universe that brought us first physics, then chemistry, then biology, then consciousness tending to conscienceness. For me in my childhood, God was an elderly stern, powerful, yet sympathetic white guy with a big beard. I could identify Him with a nice but strict grandfather. If we consider consciousness our highest attainment, no wonder many want to believe some conscious something designed the universe. That amounts to a very sophisticated sense of identity linking us and God. Or is consciousness, or even conseienceness far from the highest attainment in the universe. What’s to happen in the future? Or some have maintained that God is the laws and forces of the universe, or, simply and vaguely, everything. But if God were something like the ends of the creative processes of the emerging universe, then we ourselves might be the gods we have been waiting for, at least the gods of the moment, not the extreme humans with high powers that the Greeks imagined for their gods replete with the worst of vices as well as highest commitment to heroic principle, but with powers higher than we possess now on the evolutionary trajectory of miniplexion and who knows what else? As temporary transitional gods we have a pretty big responsibility. If not all the above speculation – and revelation some would say – about God level identify we simply care about our children’s world… we still have a very big responsibility because what we are doing is having some very large and measurable damaging effects in any case.

All this is stretching the evolutionary story, that Teilhard de Chardin and later Thomas Berry, both Catholic priests who were leading thinkers in evolutionary theory, were taking into the realm of theology. De Chardin posited and Soleri endorsed the idea that somewhere deep in the future the universe would arrive at some sort of an omega point impossible to describe even as higher consciousness, an end point in the process and we for our role as the vanguard of consciousness about now are – right now – playing a role in the eventual creation of said end point they thought might be a pretty good definition of God.

I can’t push my own thinking that far into an unpredictable future, much less theological construct, but I think serious paradigm thinking has to approach the questions religion and philosophy bring up, as well as the questions science tries to address. I can see in perhaps a more close-in to my personal experience and practical kind of way, practical for surviving better in a changing world, that the three stages of the fourth paradigm, the Conscienceness Paradigm as I’m calling it here, makes a great deal of sense. And I can also say, to project a little into the future in any case, that if we don’t “blow it,” the city will play a crucial role that Soleri saw as part of the evolving “noosphere,” or sphere of knowledge embedded in the biosphere or Biology Paradigm, imbedded in and preceded by the Chemistry Paradigm, imbedded in and preceded by the Physics Paradigm. The “noosphere” or sphere of knowledge de Chardin proposed to be something like the thoughts, the mind of the physical planetary brain made up of us and all our communication and information recording tools. Soleri added to this notion that cities are nodes of interconnection of information at a very high level of complexity and miniaturization, the real brains of which we and out tools of communication and information storage are the physical part of the noosphere. The thought process itself, I’d add, would be world embracing conscienceness embedded in well-informed coordination with ecology and evolution. And if not, maybe we’d better change things to make sure it is.

If this all gets a little dizzying, it also comes down to not as important as deciding what that brain of the noosphere or those many brains of the cities creating points of fantastically complex, sometime subtle, sometimes blow-your-circuits-out stupidity as in wars, actually decides to do. Will it be that we will all continue fighting as if we would like our religion or other belief system to be the only one left standing? Certainly that’s not modeled in any natural environment as I’ve said about five times now, not the thrust of nature thriving in biodiversity. If consciousness does have, as the Star Wars Myth seems to imply and definitely promulgates, eternal conflict unto exterminating war, then maybe conscience needs to be ascendant and if we figure that out, we can do like billions have done already and learn to live together relatively peacefully, an apple cart upended repeatedly by the few that benefit in their extreme and exaggerated games for power, wealth and glory.

Thus we have the vision of gamesmanship within reasonable limits, playing by the rules of consciensienceness, and I think a very useful way of looking at things, The Way of the Three Paradigms I’m concerned with and offering as something of an outline of a happy survival and thriving.

What then is the cultural myth of the third of our vast human centered paradigms as compared to the Star Wars Myth? That’s the Eternally Creating Myth and that can only be done through serious diversity guided by conscienceness.

Dimensional pairs

Now I will introduce just one more basic, more or less cosmic construct idea before we wind up: dimensional pairs. A dimension is that which, only together with something else, makes a reality. We can think of nothing that does not have both components of time and space. Similarly there are the dimensions of matter and energy. There is the universal and the unique; nothing seems to exist that doesn’t embody both of those. There is the permanent and the ever changing – the laws of the universe and the stuff of the universe seem to describe this pair, the created and the ever being created or “emerging.” In our world of mammal biology, there are the two sexes, male and female or the species does not go on. In capital economics there are the opposite tendencies that constitute something of a dimensional pair, one emphasizing the individual and the other the group, one competition and the other cooperation, when it appears that both are needed and have very valuable contributions to make – or else extreme capitalism turns into greed based fascist dictatorship of an individual and his gang, or Communist fascism supposedly for everyone but actually for another set of power trips not so different from the exploitation of the other “wing.” (I love this quote from John Kenneth Galbraith: “Under capitalism man exploits man. Under Communism it’s just the opposite.”)

These “dimensional pairs” are probably none other than a reworking of the ancient Chinese and Korean yin yang symbol way of visualizing the various polarities of life, though I think the notion of dimensional pairs adds a certain more specific set of thoughts to enrich the old notion. One interesting angle is that matter and energy seem to be the same thing, according to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, and the vast outpouring of energy when a small amount of matter is “lost” seems to confirm that. Then the yin yang symbol of Asian yore would seem to blur some, one dimension somehow transmuting into the other. Similarly when the competition that gets exacerbated between the two emphases, capitalism vs. socialism and grows into conflict escalating to war, we see exaggerated gamesmanship embracing the Star Wars Myth and violating much, maybe all of the norms of ethics, morality and notions of “the good” for, in evolutions longer term, short term greed for wealth, power and fame, that is essentially ego gone destructively extreme.

I often think in visual terms and hence I wonder how best to represent dimensional pairs, with the crisp edges of the yin-yang symbol, or something more blurred, even to the point of opposites melding into one another if not blasting through one another as in a nuclear fission or fusion reaction, matter becoming energy, but more like capitalists and socialists become respectful dancers, even maybe like “politics makes strange bed fellows.” Make love, not war. Analogies and abstract symbols are never precise, so my offering on the subject is provisional, but it does seem to me some form of this symbol create an image that looks something like the eyes of reality staring back at us.

Sharp edged yin-yang or melding yin-yang? Dimensional pairs might be expressed graphically, but what way best represents our universal basics, the laws of the universe itself, and in our world of humans within our universe? (Richard Register drawing)

Sharp edged yin-yang or melding yin-yang? Dimensional pairs might be expressed graphically, but what way best represents our universal basics, the laws of the universe itself, and in our world of humans within our universe?
(Richard Register drawing)

All this may seem like philosophical wanderings about, but the implications down here on the ground of health or sickness of living systems, even climate systems, and measurable change in the level of and in the vast currents of the World Ocean suggests we need to do some things that are crucially important. Naomi Klein is right about that and those at the World Academy of Art and Science are on track addressing what a new paradigm might be, or maybe as I’d guess, a couple new paradigms, one of a different character for transition to another, that would be the highest achievement of humankind.

Getting practical

But I don’t believe we can rush directly now into paradigm 4.3, the compassionately always-creating paradigm of humanity based in evolving conscienceness – step forward Saints Francis and Gandhi for a little greenpeace guidance here. I think it is pretty obvious we are not ready. We just plain couldn’t for a while, even if millions wanted to, so strong are many trends in the wrong direction. 4.2, the paradigm in which we learn to shrink back from our excesses is called for as a strategic, unique in evolution transition paradigm. It’s not a retreat but an advance of a special foundation-building kind, perhaps the most creative time of our species’ evolution and absolutely essential for healthy evolution from now on and… profoundly practical. It has to become an “every day” thing to do if we are to “improve reality.” That’s what Phil Frank’s San Francisco Chronicle cartoon character “Farley” called for and the great American environmentalist Dave Brower loved to quote back in the 1970 and 1980s. For all the many reasons treated regularly in this newsletter and in my books and presentations, in the projects of others in Ecocity Builders and for that matter among millions of people working hard to wake us all up to some dire environmental and social problems, and in the work of people adding one good feature after another to our troubled and troubling cities, we need ecocities.

But also, as I emphasize in my many friendly and well-intended rants on all the above in the last five years or so we need more than just better cities. We need to see that there is a whole set of integrally related important concerns that need a whole systems approach, just like ecology orders some very large sets of activities around various chemical and water cycles with various living creatures playing a multitude of large category roles: primary photosynthetic producer, prey, predator, decomposer, nitrogen fixer, pollinator, fertilizer and so on. Now is the time for the practical paradigm, the one that may not have to spend that much time philosophizing as I have here in this article, but instead get busy with the carpentry and plumbing of a decent set of ways of life on Earth.

Without getting into detail here, and because I’ve written about this elsewhere many times, it should still be said that we need to understand the importance of proportionalizing, then prioritizing for the few very big things that need work immediately and they are: 1. population – needs to be smaller; family planning to the rescue, 2. a much better agriculture/diet nexus that greatly de-emphasizes meat, massive energy and chemical use and machines, 3. a radically revised built environment – our subject here embracing ecocities, ecotowns and ecovillages, 4. a strategy I call “natural carbon sequestration” that utilizes the grasslands, farmlands, forests, peatlands, marshes and wetlands, mangroves, sea grasses, seaweed forests and corals to actually reverse global heating by constantly taking carbon out of the atmosphere and depositing it in the soils and sediments of the Earth. This can take very little energy and effort, though it requires a great deal of a particular kind of knowledge and ingenuity to accomplish. The idea is to utilize the stunning acreage of planet earth, fecundity of its plants under that eternal flood of solar energy.

And, we need two more, totaling six of these crucially big efforts if we are going to succeed, as Buckminster Fuller always said we could: the generosity to give back to the planet and biosphere that gave us life, investing in all the above Big Four. I’d call this simply generosity, and characterize the ecocity as the generous city, city of the future, the city that literally gives back, shrinks back to cover far less land and demand far less energy, water and a long list of materials for increased, not diminished, vitality.

Finally, there is simply, education, about the above Big Five: they need emergency emphasis richly funded, and as highest of educational priorities.

Where’s the money to invest? City and state governments say we don’t have any. That’s totally false, at least for a while, though we could wait too long and lose the opportunity, then collapse most grievously. Most of the wealth is tied up in what I call the Three Sacred Golden Cows we tremble to approach and put pressure on to deliver. They are the very rich, the military and the inordinate waste in the automobile, oil, paving and sprawl building enterprise. They – the rich, the military and the automobile/sprawl system – need to change, and can with good planning, to create the enduring, eternally creating, third phase of the Conscienceness Paradigm, 4.2, leading into 4.3.


There are no known conclusions for our universe, only changes and phases in the creative flow of evolution, surprising realities emerging. Some sort of “omega point?” Maybe. But maybe eternity overrules that and we have only an expanded present to work with. Within that time frame, understanding paradigms might prove crucially important.


Richard Register can be reached at

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Baku, Azerbaijan – A good Place for a “New Paradigm” conference

Naomi Grunditz : March 31, 2015 5:34 pm : Richard's blog : Azerbaijan, Exaggerated gamesmanship, Oil

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.”

1. Baku oil fields burning

The Baku oil fields on fire in the “rehearsal” revolution against the Czar in 1905 These were the richest oil fields into the early 20th century, with more than a dozen towering “fountains” at some times (called “gushers” in the United State where there were considerably fewer). The Germans failed to get to Baku in the two World Wars and deprived of oil when the allies were not was one of the main reasons for losing in both cases. Photo from “The Prize.”

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.

Baku, today.

Baku, today.

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.

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.

People learning from nature benefit nature – understory, canopy and emergents: Following cue from nature we can come to understand how better to build – and create ways of organizing our cities and living in our built environments to mutual benefit, humanity and nature. In this case we see a part of a small town reflecting the arrangement of a typical rainforest with understory, canopy and emergents as a good model for emulation.

People learning from nature benefit nature – understory, canopy and emergents: Following cue from nature we can come to understand how better to build – and create ways of organizing our cities and living in our built environments to mutual benefit, humanity and nature. In this case we see a part of a small town reflecting the arrangement of a typical rainforest with understory, canopy and emergents as a good model for emulation.

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.”


Dear Reader,

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.”
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Search for a Science of Unification

Naomi Grunditz : March 9, 2015 8:22 pm : Richard's blog :

Editor’s Note:

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.  


Dear Garry:

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.

2. Emergence

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.

2. Emergence

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!


Sculpture of a disabled gun in front of the United Nations Building, New York City. Gamesmanship OK; Exaggerated gamesmanship – not so much. Results in the need to work hard for peace and ecological good sense.


Image uploaded by ZhengZhou on Wikimedia Commons

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This Changes Everything

Naomi Grunditz : February 2, 2015 10:14 pm : Richard's blog : Book review, Capitalism, economics, Naomi Klein, Socialism

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.

Exaggerated gamesmanship

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.


Chart of resources extraction from 1972 data in “Limits to Growth,” published by the Club of Rome – as presented in Ugo Bardi’s “Extracted – How the Quest for Mineral Wealth Is Plundering the Planet.”

Chart of resources extraction from 1972 data in “Limits to Growth,” published by the Club of Rome – as presented in Ugo Bardi’s “Extracted – How the Quest for Mineral Wealth Is Plundering the Planet.”

Adding the effects of steady solar input and recovering biomass on the planet – the two overriding enormous positive forces to change our thinking toward a new reshaping of civilization “in balance with nature.” Yellow for the sun and green for biomass.

Adding the effects of steady solar input and recovering biomass on the planet – the two overriding enormous positive forces to change our thinking toward a new reshaping of civilization “in balance with nature.” Yellow for the sun and green for biomass.

 Richard Register can be reached at

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Remembering my friend Rusong

Naomi Grunditz : January 12, 2015 10:49 pm : Richard's blog :

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.

1. Rusong, Gar, R, #3E7D09C

In front of the Berkeley Ecology Center, 1990. Rusong is on the left, then Gar Smith, then Editor of Earth Island Journal, then me in one of my “Creek Critter” T-shirts, and Marci Riseman who would be a later President of Urban Ecology, the Berkeley-based NGO of which I was the first President.

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 and Maria Rosales, Pubic Information Officer of Curitiba, having a good time at the Dameisha Beach east of Shenzhen in 2002 during a respite tour from the Fifth International Ecocity Conference.

Rusong and Maria Rosario, Pubic Information Officer of Curitiba, having a good time at the Dameisha Beach east of Shenzhen in 2002 during a respite tour from the Fifth International Ecocity Conference.

What the Dameisha Beach looks like on a good day with a sharper focus camera than my replacement throw-a-way.

What the Dameisha Beach looks like on a good day with a sharper focus camera than my replacement throw-a-way.

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.”


China friends with Rusong, who is on the left, at the site of future development just outside of Xiamen, 2006.

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.

Ecocity Builders Executive Director with Rusong at a fish farm near Huaibei, 2009.

Ecocity Builders Executive Director Kirstin Miller with Rusong at a fish farm near Huaibei, 2009.

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.”

Rusong portrait by Paul Downton, about 2008.

Rusong portrait by Paul Downton, about 2008.

Richard can be reached at

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