Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Meditations on an Ancient Baby

I just can’t believe it. Are we really where I think we are? Or rather more accurately, where and when we are. I’m just sitting here with our Methuselah seedling, gift from the Champion Tree International Project, courtesy the US Forest Service three years ago.

This baby tree and I share a small apartment and home office in Oakland California with two others. The Methuselah Baby is only about five inches high. It was only two inches when we got it ceremonially at our World Environment Day ecocity conference in Oakland, 2005. Only twenty were sprouted, they said. Then the Forest Service had second thoughts and closed the project with Champion Tree. I don’t know about the nineteen others, but our friend is perky if small. I look out the east window over the planter box with the small bristlecone exuding such energy little specks of sap pop out randomly here and there on a scattering of needles, glistening like diamonds, smelling like mythological forests, the Black Forest, Green Mansions, Roraima, Papua New Guinea the Tiaga under cold stars filling your lungs with the north wind. It’s this intense saturation of pitch that helps make its parent, the Methuselah Tree in the White Mountains of California, almost invulnerable to rot and the oldest know living citizen of this here planet.

So this evening I sit watching the moon rise behind pink clouds and over the solar hot water panels next door, over the nine tall palm trees a block away. In the foreground there’s a potpourri of window box plants from flaming geraniums and blue flax to yellow wild mustard and oddball grasses. We have a pot for weeds that arrive by bird dropping. Then there is the Methuselah Baby watching the moon rise with me. What if it lives as long as its parent up at 11,000 feet in the White Mountains? That would be 4,770 plus years, says the Forest Service. We’ll definitely need to think hard to transplant it permanently in the right spot, given climate change.

So this is what I just can’t believe: The world is changing fast, burning out its fuses as humanity furiously burns up its fossil fuels. I’m a witness and so are you if you care to notice. Check out this month’s National Geographic. Russia’s gone materialistically gluttonous with oil and gas wealth, burning rubles along with oil like maybe they’d all exist forever. In Equatorial Guinea’s Bioko Island the locals are getting rich on oil money and literally eating up the rare expensive-to-catch monkeys they’ve shared the island with for hundreds of years. Hey! their taste for monkey meat is a cultural tradition and now they can afford it! And the cover article is about Iran and guess what it is they have that the world wants so much, which when the Methuselah Seeding is only 1/24th of its way through its life will be gone from this planet forever along with all the economically available gas and coal. Could it really be that we are going to flare out the biological/climate system fuse in one two-century jolt? Just last year everyone was about to do something about climate change and now everyone is scrambling to get to the last of the oil, pipe it in through Georgia or Russia, whoever wins that battle, and down from the Arctic Ocean and burn it up faster than ever.

We see countries like South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, Pakistan, India, Nepal, China, New Zealand, the Philippines, Peru, Argentina, Paraguay, Mexico and others with electric power black outs (“load shedding” it’s called in many countries) or transportation fuel shortages or both – I follow these on In South Africa local papers have made a joke of it: romantic candle light dinners most nights of the week – because you have no choice. There, power outages are scheduled in the papers so people can plan around them – including the burglars who read the papers and wait for the electric security systems to go down before jumping back yard walls. In Botswana you call the police and they ask you if you can pay to fill their squad car’s gas tank. If not, they’ll have to wait for then next call.

Many countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Venezuela and some of the just mentioned are also running up immense debts or nearing national bankruptcy – include Iran in this list – for buying fuel at high prices and selling to their ungrateful people at wildly reduced prices. Clamoring for democracy and cheap energy all at the same time, the poor and middle class alike are taking part in strikes and riots for fuel and food because high fuel prices drive up food prices too. These disruptive activities are multiplying around the world steadily, not quiet like a run away “critical mass reaction” yet, but accelerating nonetheless. National governments around the world are succumbing to the pressure of their self-acknowledged addicted peoples by promising new coal-fired and nuclear power plants to make up the difference and the US is, as always, deploying soldiers, advisors or US based oil company paramilitary “contractors” along pipelines to gain more control everywhere from Nigeria and Columbia to Pakistan and Georgia – and preparing its citizens to drill in the Arctic and continental shelf, ASAP, even though what’s estimated to be there is a small fraction of what humanity has burned to date and what is estimated to be underground and under water in the Middle East, Russia and some former Soviet republics.

In my sunset meditations with the Methuselah Baby I notice also that not only have most of the countries of the world long ago passed peak oil production, some knowledgeable analysts like Matthew Simmons, who has spent a lifetime in the oil industry and is now one of the most prominent energy investment bankers in the world, say that the world peak production of light sweet crude, which is called that because it actually tastes slightly sweet, occurred in the summer of 2005 at about 76 million barrels a day. Production hit slightly less than that in 2006 and slightly less than that in 2007 and now or soon it is down slope forever while demand in China, India and almost all the rest of the world escalates - along with expectations, or addiction, to use the word of our current oil industry US President. Some remind us there are always tar sands and shale oil – but with far less energy return on energy invested in search and production, and much greater environmental damage.

So noticing these things, with the spunky little tree so full of life in babyhood, I also think about its youth, say 500 years into its 4,700 plus years – like a person about nine years old. Will most of the metals be gone too or unavailability expensive to obtain and process into useful and happy things by then? I call this “the rust factor,” and refer you to Allan Weisman’s book “The World Without Us” which pushes his entertaining construct – what would happen if humanity just suddenly disappeared? – into unexpected and delightfully perverse and educational corners. One of those lines of inquiry leads us to the fact that iron, though plentiful, in fact without assiduous protection, rusts away into unavailability. Recycling will one day – in 500 years? – have to be near perfect to avoid the fate of small bits of wire and old bottle caps, pipes, appliances and so on, in addition to rusting, yielding to permanent dispersion, leaking through the billions of hands of people into ocean depths, beaches, desert sands and landfills until we won’t have enough energy to process it back into the economy again since the metals therein won’t be concentrated enough to be gathered and shaped into our stuff. Copper, aluminum, tin, chromium... along with iron will be ever more expensive to mine from ever deeper mines and ores of ever lower quality. When does it all hit the wall? Will the Methuselah Seedling see the dawning of the Second Stone Age something less than one quarter of the way through its life, in 1000 years, with scraps of metal becoming ever smaller and harder to obtain? Eskimos and the Greenland Norse, Jared Diamond points out in his book Collapse, scoured over thousands of square miles of ice and desolation to find the smallest fragments of iron from fallen meteors, these to be tools – that wore out eventually too.

Can we prepare for actually designing a world that maintains some serious material diversity in the long-term face of this? Could we start to design and build it now? Certainly, though diffuse and not as easily tapped as oil, solar and wind energy could provide an enormous source to keep some system going. But the systems themselves, and most predominantly of all, cities, would have to change in very basic ways, reducing demand for energy and materials radically. Recycling could approach 100% if we designed for exactly that. In Ecocity Builders we have always claimed that the foundation of the system, at least physically speaking – and that’s a lot – would be the cities, towns and villages designed consciously to be ecologically healthy from the get-go.

Once upon a long time ago I didn’t watch sunsets and moonrises with the Methusela Baby – Methuselah Senior was only 4,730 years old then, 800 miles to the west. I’d sit on the rooftop of my family’s hobby ranch house south of Santa Fe, New Mexico with my guitar and howl at the sunset, moon, stars, whatever, like a coyote, like any other self-respecting teenager. I’d obsess on humanity’s suicidal tendencies and ever imminent nuclear war while watching the western horizon – where Los Alamos sparkled in the night – where they were designing America’s nuclear arsenal. This will sound either embarrassingly naive or megalomaniacal, but I’d say to myself: I’m going to try to find “the keys to the secrets of the universe.” Stop those wars. Build a beautiful universe with all those principles and tools waiting to be discovered and invented. Those were the words I would use to myself but dared not utter to others... “keys to the secretes of the universe." Too extreme. But let’s face it, ecocities are one of those keys to the future, maybe even to the “secrets of the universe.” Get that right and much else will follow.

I hope you’re getting something out of this, little seedling. Well, at least it helps me dedicate some real effort to figuring out where to plant you for your long haul into the future of this planet. Anyone out there have ideas – you know... – home for this global warming orphan in a time of biosphere burnout? I’m hoping you’ll join us in building ecocities, but in addition, where to plant the Methuselah Baby?

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

“Nothing More Important”

The following is a short essay written by Richard Register as the published introduction to the companion book for the “Theory and Model of International Ecological City” subconference of the “2007 China International Architecture Design & Scene Planning Exhibition and Forum on Urban Planning of Senior Government Officials” in Langfang, Hebei Province, China, June 19 and 20, 2008. The book, called “The Living Land,” was published by the Shanghai International Investment Company which is building five “ecocity” projects including Dongtan, near Shanghai, and Wanzhuang, about 80 miles east of Beijing near Langfang.

There may be one or two things as important for humanity’s future, but nothing is more important than ecocities.

If human beings are stressing planet Earth to the breaking point, and we are, it is because of our vast numbers and our enormous rates of consumption of resources and production of wastes in the process. This stands as something broadly accepted in a world of climate change, the coming end of cheap energy and collapsing species diversity on a global scale.

But what is most often missed is the design and layout of our built environment of cities, towns and villages. Could we build cities that actually enrich soils, promote biodiversity and stabilize climate while creating a more beautiful human environment than ever seen before and one harmonious with the natural world as well? That’s the promise of ecocities and in China some of the most important efforts in exploring cities are underway in places such as Wanzhuang Ecocity Project in Langfang. There we see the strategy of “leading by government, operating by market” which means that there needs to be a design of the incentives to assist and enable the design of the physical thing itself, the physical city as an ecocity.

First, just how important are cities? We have been hearing for some years now that “this year more than half the people in the world will be living in cities.” The figures keep shifting because the data gathered by the United Nations simply accepts and uses the various nations’ wide ranging definitions of what constitutes cities. But what is important to notice is that probably 90% or more of us – almost all of us – live in either cities, towns or villages and at all those scales our built community can be either designed upon the foundation of ecological understanding or without it. In other words, ecocity design relates to practically all scales of development and, if it were applied across those scales would be a solution of sufficient power to preserve and restore the health of the whole planet.

Second, how well recognized is the fact that ecocity design holds this enormous potential for health and happy solutions to crucial problems? Practically not at all! We are dealing with something almost a complete secret when the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Bali in December, 2007 fails to mention the largest things human being create when debating solutions to global heating. Not a word was said about city form or urban design. Certainly some of the world’s best scientists and most conscientious citizens and politicians were doing their best in all the ways they normally go about their work. But somehow they all missed the connection between the design, layout, planning and building of the largest creations of our species – cities – and their impacts on climate. If one kind of city puts out massive quantities of CO2, but a city built in a very different, ecologically informed way would put out one tenth as much, that is enormously important information. That building a different kind of city has this potential for good is simply an insight that is currently so new as to be almost unheard of. People have gotten used to the idea that an ecologically healthy city is an oxymoron, a self-contradiction. The fact that cities do pollute has completely obscured the fact that they can pollute much less, very much less by design – and perhaps the “waste” products of that better design could actually be used for benefit instead of cast off as damage to land, life and society. We have simply not been paying attention to building the best we possibly could.

Third, why haven’t we been moving much more quickly toward ecocities? I’ve been wondering why something that sounds so good – cities designed on the measure of the person, rather than the machine, cities designed to leave room for nature in all its glory, cities to enrich soil as is done in China in a number of other countries in an older kind of agriculture that recycles organics thoroughly, cities conserving energy so well that only a modest flow of energy from the sun or wind could power the whole thing – have not been developed right along with all the other clever humans inventions. For more than forty years I’ve been working on ecological city design, and there have been others in the field too, but practically nothing until very recently has been built, and then on a small scale, as just a building here or there or a small part of city. Lately we have been recognizing healthy “ecological” patterns in the essence of a much older way of building cities, as we see in the model of old European cities, Nepalese large towns, and traditional villages of compact design in China and around the world defining streets and bringing the full variety of mutual services close together. Why haven’t we earlier extracted the basic principles and techniques from the many pieces that seem to indicate where we should be going? Why has only recently Curitiba, Brazil assembled enough pieces of good layout and design that people are beginning to bring the picture into focus? It would seem strange that Dongtan, now said to be the “first ecocity” could actually be the first or something close to a first when we could have been building right for decades or even centuries. Maybe most important, is there something in the way we are building cities that makes it very difficult to actually progress toward cities good enough to be a positive ecological presence on Earth, a built environment in harmony with the natural environment?

I think there is an answer to this puzzle and it is that we have not been looking at things in their true proportion and we haven’t been exercising imagination fully. We stop thinking halfway to the answer.

Regarding proportionality, for example, the car is a key player in shaping contemporary cities – and disastrously. There is good theoretical basis for seeing the automobile as intrinsically extraordinarily damaging to urban health in simply noticing that the average car is approximately 30 times as heavy as the human body, ten times as fast and about 60 times as big in volume. Designing for something that overbearing in cities has been a mistake few are willing to face. Attempts at making cities healthier come up against desires for speed and bridging distances that have only been possible in an age of very cheap energy and machines that muscle their way across town while completely redesigning it. That’s one big problem in the way.
Another is a notion exemplifying lack of imagination and unwillingness to think through options more thoroughly. That problem exists even in many of the best of European towns and taught in architecture and city planning classes and that notion is that “good urbanism” doesn’t have nature in it. Why not? Who says? In what form and design? Why the lack of imagination here? This idea, embodied in, for example, the compact “walking streets” of old Europe and Asia and the squares and plazas with no plants at all and only pigeons for wildlife, or parks with 100% grass and non-native plants is an idea that has been around for so long it is taken as some sort of rule without thinking through how a much better relationship to nature could be even better urbanism, enriching urban life even more. It’s time to wake up – before nature strikes back for our lack of attention to her.

Another notion is “human scale” in cities – meaning small and often tagged to a four or five story height limit – though many people in China and larger cities everywhere take the notion much more realistically. The benefits of compact, three-dimensional form with real diversity of facilities and services means people can walk and take bicycles and transit very easily, saving enormous amounts of energy, land, time, material investment and money. There is a core of truth to the notion of human scale as small scale but it exists in a dynamic with the larger scale, which is a human product too, and which can be designed very differently than we see generally expressed now. For example, the vital pedestrian city could be one with many taller buildings with terraces linked by bridges, with large sheltered interior passageways on the scale of cathedral interiors, with sunny public space arranged around small waterways and native plants attracting native birds to high places.

I’ve seen people move small steps in the right direction and stop, satisfied that they have arrived. They, for example, might recycle better and buy an energy saving automobile, but they still live a long way from work and their friends and drive anyway. I’ve seen them freeze up the city, opposing any new “density” in already existing neighborhoods or resist adding diversity of services and jobs to a neighborhood, clinging to the segregating single uses of zoning that helped the car scatter the city of car dependent and cheap energy dependent distances. But in projects now being planned in China, such as Dongtan and Wanzhuang, the notion of “access by proximity” – being close to a wide variety of what you need in the city is finally taken seriously and will be the world model for our fast approaching future when cheap energy is gone forever.

But even there, what is missing is going for the full spectrum ecocity now. We need to be thorough. We need to see all the parts connected and understand that to have a better car actually makes a worse city because it perpetuates the same anti-ecocity form with all its excesses. It is time for imagination to explore the whole notion in its fullness. Only then can we get beyond the compromises and the habits of stopping way short of... cities that actually enrich soils, promote biodiversity and stabilize climate while creating a more beautiful human environment than ever seen before and one harmonious with the natural world as well.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

It's the Economy, Stupid!

Analysis, June, 2008

It's the Economy, Stupid!

Remember that line? The Clinton for President campaign in 1992 came up with it in their victorious race against George H. W. Bush. Simple minded as it was, it seemed to have worked.

Here we are now with the largest one-day increase in oil prices in history, $10.75, and the highest closing price in history, $138.54/barrel. Also today we have reports of the highest monthly unemployment increase in 22 years and the Stock Market dropping more, 394 points, than on any other day in the last 15 months. To recast the slogan, "It's the stupid economy." Something in the economy seems to have not worked. Not only that, the whole construct makes no sense.

"How many times do I have to tell you," scolded the ecology teacher, "society's economy is based on nature's, not vice versa."

Capitalism has been based on the delusional notion that infinite growth in a limited environment is healthy, that prosperity can and should mean maximum consumption everlasting, world without end. But the world does end in the sense of having limits and ignoring that rather simple and gigantic fact could well be its end. Environmentalism is or should be - certainly ecology is without question - based on the idea of balances that get adjusted pretty quickly and severely when contradicted for long. Infinite growth in a limited environment is a clear formula for massive collapse if not suicide when growth suddenly hits the wall of finite limits.

This is not a capitalist vs. socialist issue in the slightest. Both have enshrined infinitely growing industrial production and "the people's" infinitely growing consumption as both goal and standard operating procedure. Both are - excuse me my common language for it - stupid. They are stupid economic constructs because they are based on a fantasy cooked up in the bubble of human conceit that we are better than anything else in the universe, gloriously our wonderful selves. Which isn't to say we are not in fact pretty damn wonderful, but not that wonderful! There are wonders in nature we are economically dependent upon, and that's a hard and fast rule based on minerals du jour and forever, scintillating protoplasm pulsing about us everywhere in this thin bubble of life called the biosphere and starlight, locally called sunshine, pouring down energizing everything. Ignore all that and the rules of their interrelationships at your own peril.

Our cops and firefighters are all Communists

Capitalism vs. socialism and vice versa has always been a phony issue, exploited by politicians and people hungry for influence and power in both camps. In the capitalist society, are the police, fire department, and road and street builders working on government money actually socialist infiltrators scheming to take over? Are the bureaucrats in charge of the distribution for the "common good" really enemy agents? No. Paying taxes and spending for the common good is a good idea. Period. In the Communist counties are people working for their families' savings and reinvesting in their own future while doing business producing a product or service their neighbors want - are they, when you put them under the microscope of paranoia, really capitalist plants from a malevolent alien planet called Wall Street or Wal-Mart? No. They are being responsible to their own preservation and happy survival of those they love best. Nothing wrong with that at all, plus in their exchange with others is a large element of the collective good.

But some of those who recognize the power of the competition script to heat people's blood and secure votes and other forms of political power, and who have noticed not everybody has time for fact-checking, that is, can be rather easily lied too, have exploited the competitive half of the competition/cooperation balance. Never mind if they claimed to be cooperative and sharing in some ultimate sense, as did the Soviet Communists. The weakness of the species, especially the males of the species, for proving themselves as individuals in sports, games, business, and fighting has been exploited and societies' investments in these activities, self-named capitalist and socialist societies alike, make investments in coming to know and work with the natural economy look miniscule indeed. The competition script, like that of the Star Wars movies, is that war and violence, the ultimate expression of extreme competition, permeates the entire universe and all time... "in a distant galaxy long, long ago."

Well competition probably does permeate the universe, but if so, so does cooperation. Where competition comes to its ultimate expressions as war and murder, for whatever excuse political or personal, some of us - take Christ, Thoreau, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. for example - say that there really is another dimension to the whole picture. Said Gandhi, "Non-violence is the greatest force at the disposal of Mankind. It is the supreme law. By it alone can Mankind be saved." Without claiming - it would be a false claim in any case - that it is cooperation, sharing and friendly hugs that is our real natural character as human beings, we could still work peacefully with a dynamic balance of competition and cooperation together, as nature works.

Buy high, sell low - and what is actually needed

Right now, due to high fuel prices after civilization built up a massively large physical infrastructure of cities and machines and population of people who see themselves more as consumers than producers or even creators, we are seeing whole countries approaching bankruptcy. They have been buying oil products, especially gasoline and diesel fuel, at ever increasing prices while setting low prices to keep the machines - and the people - humming obliviously along while debt was accumulating in a most spectacular way. Now if there was ever a third holy writ of capitalism besides it's rule of maximum growth and dogmatic antipathy toward "socialism" meaning cooperation and sharing, it is that one always buys low and sells high. The only businessman to write his business model on the formula of buy high, sell low would be dead in the water metaphorically or literally, on the sidewalk under a tall building near Wall Street, October 1929 style. Oddly, though establishment economists hoe to the line of infinite growth and denial of fundamental cooperation, they have diverted dramatically from the buy low, sell high rule when it comes to the biggest challenge of all in their world - keeping nation states stable, without which financial structures tumble in tandem. For whole nations to go bankrupt is more than a little risky for all of civilization.

What is actually needed is an honest confrontation with inordinately high human populations - get real, religions! - and building our civilization to run lean, not fat. The formulas of ecocity development are the full employment way to powerdown to a different and genuinely sane economics. How we come to understand how to do that, to invest in rails and just plan let the airlines go, to make walkable cities and just let the cars go the way of those other dinosaurs that went out with the last great extinction event, I don't know for sure. But some thoughts on the subject follow in any case.

The seers of trends, and the seers of what isn't there yet

George Herbert Leigh Mallory who maybe was the first to climb Everest, then again maybe not, said he wanted to climb the mountain "because it is there." Creative types, in a kind of reverse version of the same impulse want to make something "because it is not there." This is an interesting way to look at views of the future and the possibilities for the economy changing in some substantial way, maybe even to become harmonious with natures economy. Don't expect the insights to come clear when playing video games, watching a football or scanning endlessly the stock quotes for an opening. You have to actually study nature's economy, that is, ecology. We need an "eco-economy," perhaps "ecoconomy" and have to put serious attention upon it and investment in it. See? We don't even have a word for it yet! Here's my point: you can't get there by projecting trends, even projecting them well. (This may also mean that the usual habit of well-meaning planners, politicians and bureaucrats writing projections, targets and time tables may be way off target too, but that's a longer discussion.)

I have an argument with my Peak Oil friends who believe it is hopeless to change the way we build cities because it is a big, ponderous proposition that takes time and it is already too late to start out on that path. We just don't literally have enough energy left and too much ignorance of the overall picture to hope we can alert, educate and launch serious investment and leadership for a "Plan B," in Lester Browns terms, to avert the catastrophe and reshape virtually everything via reshaping cities. I do not argue that it is not in fact late in the game. I even think, given the record of society's blindness and a willingness to ignore crucial issues until too late, doom prognosticators are very likely right in their assessment. To date, the economy has proven to be stupid. The Peak Oil alarmists (we need the wake up call to get started - so this is not an insulting term here) are the seers of the future via projecting the trends and definitely not in the same base camp with Mallory and the creatives who know how to dream what hasn't been done before and do it, who know they can build something that isn't there.

A funny little story. Before I was swept away by the sense or responsibility I got when I really "got it" about the importance of ecological cities in the early 1970s, not long after meeting Paolo Soleri, I was making sculpture. Not just any sculpture but for the sense of touch. I loved exploring the unknown in my own little store front in Venice, California. My sculpture for the sense of touch involved work with steel welding, carving stone and wood, upholstering with foam rubber and fur, velvet and silk, and installing all kinds of machines for making heat and cold, moisture and dryness, vibration and dead calm, air flow and fog clouds - and all this integral to the form and texture normal sculpture exhibits. I was at a party one night and when someone asked me, "What do you do," I said just that. He said, "You can't do that!" I replied, "Not only can I do that, that's exactly what I do. I do it every day. I'm a tactile artist." The guy insistently denied anyone could be doing that. He had never heard of such a thing. Even after I described a number of such sculpture pieces I had built he still maintained that he didn't believe me, it couldn't be done.

Some people like myself live as much in the future as in the past and present. Some of us are clear sighted trend projectors like Richard Heinberg, author of "Peak Oil" books. Jan Lundberg, my friend who used to be a major petroleum industry analyst is now a doomsday predictor waiting for a time after the economic collapse and die off. Then maybe we will have learned something, by God!, and will have a chance at reorganization of society. He believes it is impossible to reorganize before the collapse of civilization. Then we'll be sorry. Then we will finally be ready to come up with a better script for humanity. By following and projecting the trends, even with the best understanding of how things are going wrong, you do see a pretty bleak future for humanity. You see it in the collapse of the airlines taking place right before our eyes right now. You see it in food prices going through the ceiling while a UN conference on the subject in Rome, this same week of record oil price advance and highest value ever per barrel, proclaims that this is the year when one billion people are at risk of extreme hunger or even starvation because farmers can't pay enough to keep their tractors going, buy fertilizer and insecticides and all those other miracles of the Green Revolution that pumped our population up so gloriously and gluttonously.

But those are the perspectives of that kind of seer that sees what's been happening and projects it forward, maybe with real clarity and skill, within those limits. The kind of seer that is seeking to build what isn't there, is another animal entirely, which is where ecocity design comes in. When speaking to audiences around the world about ecocities, after showing many drawings and describing a future that looks pretty exciting and healthy to me and most of the other people in the room, I usually get the question, "But don't the negative forces and trends you talk about mean we really can't build an ecocity civilization?"

The fire hose of the money we still have left

I usually say something like this: There is a powerful fountain of money shooting like a powerful stream of water through a hose and we hold the nozzle in our hands. We currently are aiming that fire hose of money at road building, sprawl development, efforts to create more cheap energy, all of which are obviously in a rapidly growing crisis. The developers, business people, unions and just plain folks who bought into it all - the city structure that isn't working, the cars that express who we are supposed to be, the mind set of consuming, the heart set of desire for more of the same - don't have to keep building the same thing. Instead of trying to make the anachronistic car that kills so many of us outright run even more dangerously silent on dreams of cheap electricity, why not just admit solar electricity is going to be more expensive? We can run trains and streetcars on it. Cities can be designed to run on one tenth the energy they now demand if built for people instead of cars. Why not aim that hose of money pouring forth at billions per second toward retooling and retraining for building a lean and healthy, instead of fat and collapsing economy that recognizes that limits exist, cooperation exists, balances can be struck, and new things really can come into existence that are better than current habits that oh so definitely are not working. Before we get too close to the spectacular end, we need to begin something else that in its own right could be stunningly beautiful: the enterprise of building an ecocity civilization.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

How People Trying to Improve Things Can Make Them Worse

In the world of people attempting work to make human society more
sustainable there are two very large generally unexamined problems:

1. Making small counterproductive “improvements” without understanding the whole system – thus failing to understand the dynamics of longer range failure.

2. Failing to address the built infrastructure of city, town and village as the foundation for arrangement of many technologies, including such crucial ones as energy,transportation and food production – all severely impacted by sprawl cities.


New Orleans people helping put people back in dangers’ way by helping rebuild in car-dependent, low-density housing below sea level surrounded by 350 miles of levees.

Alternative: Build a pedestrian streetcar city of compact diversity on artificial mounds. Such development elevated above the floods is easily accomplished physically for neighborhoods or whole cities designed around pedestrians, bicycles and streetcars but impossible in the case of car-dependent sprawl because of the massive amount of land and fill that would be required. Such elevated development on artificial mounds is done in may parts of the world, including in New Orleans at New Orleans University.

Creek fans in Berkeley preventing the opening of creeks into the foreseeable future by refusing to consider land use shifting strategies fearing any kind of serious change, even through willing seller deals, that could remove some development along creeks.

Alt.: Ecocity mapping and transfer of development rights (TDR) strategies or simply spending City money for density shifting to help transit, housing needs and open space. Such strategies are pursued in South Lake Tahoe with a TDR strategy and at Portland’s Johnson Creek with a simple city funded willing seller deal purchase strategy.

Environmentalists driving Priuses so they can continue low density living and driving.

Alt.: Weaning from cars through using transit, bicycling, moving to centers, and supporting zoning and politics for shifting cities to centers oriented development. Happens all the time with people quitting or going lite on car dependence.

Solar on houses promoting low-density living and continued paving, car use and thus more energy use.

Alt.: Solar to apartments and condos from central generating plants and the grid. Solar on buildings not close to urban or rural centers should not be encouraged as the practice encourages NOT changing the disastrous urban structure that presently exists. Solar energy utilizing power plants or “solar electric farms” in sunny locations and “wind farms” exist and should be promoted.