Saturday, May 16, 2015

What Would Happen if We all Grew Food?

A Fall sunset in California's Central Valley (photo: P.M. Lydon, Final Straw)
A Fall sunset in California's Central Valley (photo: P.M. Lydon, Final Straw)

I'd like to start off with a story about a woman I know who works full time, takes home a below-median income, and raises two kids in Silicon Valley. This woman also has an organic garden in her tiny back yard, partially for her own enjoyment, and partially so she can afford to eat good food.

Every year, her tiny part time garden produces far more than she needs. She shares the excess, and I mean huge excess. She shares peppers and lettuce and lemons and cucumbers and spinach and beets and all else with dozens of people. This full-time worker, part time farmer produces more food than her and her friends know what to do with.
And her story is not unique.

Let's pause here to think about what this means for a moment, about this woman, her part time passion, and how much she and those around her receive from it.Now, think about this single instance of plentiful food, and multiply it across your block. How many people could all the empty yards in a suburban block feed if they were put to use growing food?

Now multiply that across your neighborhood, all the empty yards, lawns, abandoned lots. How much of a bounty in food could you have?

Now think further, across your entire city, your entire region. Imagine yards and blocks and rivers and valleys filled perennials, fruits, berries, filled with lush vegetable gardens.
Yoshikazu Kawaguchi at his home natural farm garden in Nara, Japan (Photo: P.M. Lydon | FInal Straw)
Yoshikazu Kawaguchi at his home natural farm garden in Nara, Japan (Photo: P.M. Lydon | FInal Straw)

A silly agrarian dream? The United Nations Doesn't Think So, nor does its Food and Agriculture Organization, or decades of research by Rodale Institute, or the millions of Regenerative Farmers, Natural Farmers, and Permaculturists who are working today to feed most of the world.

The Myth that We Need Industrial Agriculture has been debunked, and the only ones who are holding onto this myth, are the industry giants who helped create it.

Ecologically speaking, we have the ability to grow much of our own food while also enriching the land around us, assuming we understand and follow somewhat seasonal diets; biologically speaking, this way of eating can contribute great benefits to our body's health; psychologically speaking, the garden is therapeutic, our minds are put more at ease and operate more clearly and peacefully after time spent working in the garden.
Again, replicate this view across your neighborhood, city, and region. How different does your world look? More peace? More good food? More neighborly neighbors?
Rice harvest instruction at 최성현 Seonghyun Choi's natural farm in South Korea
Rice harvest instruction at 최성현 Seonghyun Choi's natural farm in South Korea (photo: P.M. Lydon,

Not only is there a benefit to the human world, but there is great ecological benefit to our earth as a whole. Through regenerative growing methods such as permaculture and natural farming, the process of growing food – and flowers and shrubs and trees alongside – is also a process of regenerating land and wildlife in our cities, and a process of reducing the need for destructive industrial agriculture.

Once more, replicate this view across the land where you live; envision the process of making humanity more healthy and peaceful, and making our earth more beautiful, more healthy, and more resilient at the same time.

When you see the reality of how our current food system works – and how it works against health, peace, and resilience at every turn – you begin to wonder how we were ever tricked into believing that we need industrial agriculture. Or pesticide. Or synthetic chemicals. Or a food system where global distribution is the rule and not the exception.

Rural Korean supermarket (photo: P.M. Lydon,

This view of industrial agriculture as our savior has of course been debunked both by scientific and anecdotal evidence over the past several decades. So one wonders, why we are still operating our food systems in such a way?

The real reason why we need GMOs, synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and industrial agriculture is because it increases profit, scarcity, and control of food as a commodity. Make no mistake, there is little to no benefit for us as individuals in this reasoning, and myriad pitfalls.

The real reason we need GMOs, synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and industrial agriculture is, by any measure of social or biological wellness, a lie; one invented and carefully maintained to benefit a few very wealthy people.

Show the heads of the food industry that you know the truth. Grow a garden. Show them your power.

Garden vegetables (photo: Suhee Kang,
Garden vegetables (photo: Suhee Kang,

Show careless profit seekers the truth. Share your bounty freely with your friends and neighbors. Show them your compassion.

Show those who seek to hold the keys to a basic human need, that you won't abide by their treachery to the human race. Show them your awareness and your strength.

There is hope for the world, and it lies in your awareness and actions, and also... in your gardens.

Patrick M. Lydon

Resources and Further Reading
Health Benefits Bloom By Digging in the Garden – USA Today

Small-Scale Traditional Farming Is the Only Way to Avoid Food Crisis, UN Researcher Says – YES Magazine

Dr. Vandana Shiva on Poverty and Globalization – BBC

Genetically modifying and patenting seeds isn't the answer – Guardian UK

The More Beautiful World: Chapter 29, Evil – Charles Eisenstein

Peak Oil: A Graphic Story

Peak Oil: A Graphic Story

Australian artist Stuart MacMillan has spent over 700 hours creating this amazing cartoon of the life and work of M.King Hubbert. Below are just 2 images of the 139 that make up the full story.
US oil graphic US oil graphic

For more about the project, or to find out how to support Stuart's work read his blog and watch the video.

Friday, March 27, 2015

The Plan to Mop Up the World's Largest Oil Spill With Fungus - Written by Maddie Stone

The Plan to Mop Up the World's Largest Oil Spill With Fungus
Written by Maddie Stone

 March 5, 2015 // 11:00 AM EST The dinner plate-sized mushroom encircles its host tree like a bloated tumor. I'm about to snap a photo of the beast when something flickers in the corner of my eye. Faint, smoky wisps give off the impression of smoldering coals. At this very instant, the fungus is releasing billions of microscopic spores. 

   I feel as though I'm witnessing one of nature's secret acts, something an urbanite like me was only supposed to see on National Geographic. With a lush green canopy overhead, the hum of insects and warbles of tropical birds filling my ears, the moment would be Avatar­-worthy, save one jarring detail: The air reeks of petroleum. 

   That's because I'm standing over a patch of blackened, crude-soaked ground. I’m here in the Sucumbíos province of northeast Ecuador with Donald Moncayo, a community organizer with the Amazon Defense Coalition. This spot, Moncayo says, holds a special significance. It’s the first in a series of nearly a thousand toxic waste pits that litter this remote part of the Ecuadorian Amazon, festering like open sores under the fierce equatorial sun. 

    "All the pools are in direct contact with the water and the soil," said Moncayo, who has been taking visitors on his so-called 'toxic tours' since the early 2000s. "There are no membranes, no barriers, nothing. All of this was intentional." 

   These toxic waste pools—locals call them 'piscinas'—are the legacy of Texaco's twenty six-year stint extracting oil from Sucumbíos. (Texaco has since become a subsidiary of Chevron.) The spills have been poisoning the soil, water, vegetation and people of the region for over twenty years. ​ Credit: Amazon Mycorenewal Project 

   Not ten meters away, one of the most amazing mushrooms I'd ever laid eyes on—and, after years as a microbial ecologist, I’ve seen my fair share—is breathing new life into the forest. To me there’s something serendipitous about this, because I’ve traveled to Sucumbíos to meet a group of scientists and activists who hold the radical notion that fungi are the key to empowering the victims of a horrific environmental disaster to clean up their land. 

   "Oil companies don't teach people the solutions to their problems, because that would be an admission of their own wrongdoing.” Lexie Gropper, the program coordinator for the Sucumbíos Alliance of Bioremediation and Sustainability (ABSS), told me. “They prefer people who lack the power to make a change.” 

   But Gropper believes that change is coming. In less than a year, the exuberant, Spanish-speaking 24-year-old from Atlanta, Georgia has rolled together enough local and international resources to lay the groundwork for an organization dedicated to improving the health of humans and the soiled Amazonian environment through fungi. A collaboration between the US-nonprofit the Amazon Mycorenewal Project, and the Instituto Superior Tecnológico Crecermas (ISTEC), Sucumbíos's only higher education institute, ABSS aspires, over the coming years, to transform a humble agricultural university into Ecuador's primary hub for mushroom cultivation, distribution, and education. 

   The project’s aim? Nothing short of cleaning up the one of the world's largest oil disasters—using giant, petroleum-gobbling fungi. 

Read the rest here...

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The latest from Dmitry Orlov...
Tuesday, February 17, 2015

by Dmitry Orlov

David Herbert
This blog is dedicated to the idea of presenting the big picture—the biggest possible—of what is going on in the world. The abiding areas of interest that make up the big picture have included the following:

1. The terminal decay and eventual collapse of industrial civilization as the fossil fuels that power it become more and more expensive to produce in the needed quantities, of lower and lower resource quality and net energy and, eventually, in ever-shorter supply.

The first guess by Hubbert that the all-time peak of oil production in the US would be back in the 1970s was accurate, but later prediction of a global peak, followed by a swift collapse, around the year 2000 was rather off, because here we are 15 years later and global oil production has never been higher. Oil prices, which were high for a time, have temporarily moderated. However, zooming in on the oil picture just a little bit, we see that conventional oil production peaked in 2005—just 5 years late—and has been declining ever since, and the shortfall has been made up by oil that is difficult and expensive to get at (deep offshore, fracking) and by things that aren't exactly oil (tar sands).

The current low prices are not high enough to sustain this new, expensive production for much longer, and the current glut is starting to look like a feast to be followed by famine. The direct cause of this famine will not be energy but debt, but it can still be traced back to energy: a successful, growing industrial economy requires cheap energy; expensive energy causes it to stop growing and to become mired in debt that can never be repaid. Once the debt bubble pops, there isn't enough capital to invest in another round of expensive energy production, and terminal decay sets in.

2. The very interesting process of the USA becoming its own nemesis: the USSR 2.0, or, as some are calling, the USSA.

The USA is best characterized as a decomposing corpse of a nation lorded over by a tiny clique of oligarchs who control the herd by wielding Orwellian methods of mind control. So far gone is the populace that most of them think that things are just peachy—there is an economic recovery, don't you know—but a few of them do realize that they all have lots of personal issues with things like violence, drug and alcohol abuse, and gluttony. But don't call them a nation of violent, drug-abusing gluttons, because that would be insulting. In any case, you can't call them anything, because they aren't listening, for they are too busy fiddling with their electronic life support units to which they have become addicted. Thanks to Facebook and the like they are now so far inside Plato's cave that even the shadows they see aren't real: they are computer simulations of shadows of other computer simulations.

The signs of this advanced state of decomposition are now unmistakable everywhere you look, be it education, medicine, culture or the general state of American society, where now fully half the working-age men is impaired in their ability to earn a decent living. But it is now particularly obvious in the endless compounding of errors that is the essence of American foreign policy. Some have started calling it “the empire of chaos,” neglecting to mention the fact that an empire of chaos is by definition ungovernable.

A particularly compelling example o failure is the Islamic Caliphate, which now rules large parts of Syria and Iraq. It was initially organized with American help topple the Syrian government, but which now threatens the stability of Saudi Arabia instead. This problem was made much worse by alienating Russia, which, with its long Central Asian border, is the one major nation that is interested in fighting Islamic extremism. The best the Americans have been able to do against the Caliphate is an expensive and ineffectual bombing campaign. Previous ineffectual and expensive bombing campaigns, such as the one in Cambodia, have produced unintended consequences such as the genocidal regime of Pol Pot, but why bother learning from mistakes when you can endlessly compound them?

Another example is the militarized mayhem and full-blown economic collapse that has engulfed the Ukraine in the wake of American-organized violent overthrow of its last-ever constitutional government a year ago. The destruction of the Ukraine was motivated by Zbigniew Brzezinski's simplistic calculus that turning the Ukraine into an anti-Russian NATO-occupied zone would effectively thwart Russian imperial ambitions. A major problem with this calculus is that Russia has no imperial ambitions: Russia has all the territory it could ever want, but to develop it it needs peace and free trade. Another slight problem with Zbiggy's “chessboard” is that Russia does have an overriding concern with protecting the interests of Russians wherever they may live and, for internal political reasons, will always act to protect them, even if such actions are illegal and carry the risk of a larger military conflict. Thus, the American destabilization of the Ukraine has accomplished nothing positive, but did increase the odds of nuclear self-annihilation. But if the USA manages to disappear from the world's political map without triggering a nuclear holocaust, we will still have a problem, which is that...

3. The climate of Earth, our home planet, is, to put it as politely as possible, completely fucked. Now, there are quite a few people who think that radically altering the planet's atmospheric and ocean chemistry and physics by burning just over half the fossilized hydrocarbons that could possibly be dug up using industrial means nothing, and that what we are observing is just natural climate variability. These people are morons. I will delete every single one of the comments they submit in response to this post, but in spite of my promise to do so, I assure you that they will still submit them... because they are morons.

What we are looking at is a human-triggered extinction episode that will certainly be beyond anything in human experience, and which may rival the great Permian-Triassic extinction event of 252 million years ago. There is even the possibility of Earth becoming completely sterilized, with an atmosphere as overheated and toxic as that of Venus. That these changes are happening does not require prediction, just observation. The only parameters that remain to be determined are these:

1. How far will this process run? Will there still be a habitat where humans can survive? Humans cannot survive without plenty of fresh water and sources of carbohydrates, proteins and fats, all of which require functioning ecosystems. Humans can survive on almost any kind of diet—even tree bark and insects—but if all vegetation is dead, then so are we. Also, we cannot survive in an environment where the wet bulb temperature (which takes into account our ability to cool ourselves by sweating) exceeds our body temperature: whenever that happens, we die of heat stroke. Lastly, we need air that we can actually breathe: if the atmosphere becomes too low in oxygen (because the vegetation has died out) and too high in carbon dioxide and methane (because the dead vegetation has burned off, the permafrost has melted, and the methane currently trapped in oceanic clathrates has been released) then we all die.

We already know that the increase in average global temperature has exceeded 1C since pre-industrial times, and, based on the altered atmospheric chemistry, is predicted to eventually exceed 2C. We also know that industrial activity, thanks to the aerosols it puts into the atmosphere, produces an effect known as global dimming. Once it's gone, the average temperature will jump by at least another 1.1C. This would put us within striking range of 3.5C, and no humans have ever been alive with Earth more than 3.5C above baseline. But, you know, there is a first time for everything. Maybe we can invent some gizmo... Maybe if we all put on air-conditioned sombreros or something... (Design contest, anyone?)

2. How fast will this process happen?

The thermal mass of the planet is such that there is a 40-year lag between when atmospheric chemistry is changed and its effects on average temperature are felt. So far we have been shielded from some of the effects by two things: the melting of Arctic and Antarctic ice and permafrost, and the ocean's ability to absorb heat. Your iced drink remains pleasant until the last ice cube is gone, but then it becomes tepid and distasteful rather quickly. Some scientists say that, on the outside, it will take 5000 years for us to run out of ice cubes, causing the party to end, but then the dynamics of the huge glaciers that supply the ice cubes are not understood all that well, and there have been constant surprises in terms of how quickly they can slough off icebergs, which then drift into warmer waters and melt quickly.

But the biggest surprise of the last few years has been the rate of arctic methane release. Perhaps you haven't, but I've found it impossible to ignore all the scientists who have been ringing alarm bells on Arctic methane release. What they are calling the clathrate gun—which can release some 50 gigatons of methane in as little as a couple of decades—appears to have been fired in 2007 and now, just a few years later, the trend line in Arctic methane concentrations has become alarming. But we will need to wait for at least another two years to get an authoritative answer. Overall, the methane held in the clathrates is enough to exceed the global warming potential of all fossil fuels burned to date by a factor of between 4 and 40. The upper end of that range does seem to put us quite far towards a Venus-type atmosphere, and the surviving species may be limited to exotic thermophilic bacteria, if that, and certainly will not include any of the species we like to eat, nor any of us.

Looking at such numbers has caused quite a few researchers to propose the possibility of near-term human extinction. Estimates vary, but, in general, if the clathrate gun has indeed gone off, then most of us shouldn't be planning to be around beyond mid-century. But the funny thing is (humor is never in poor taste, no matter how dire the situation) that most of us shouldn't be planning on sticking around beyond mid-century in any case. The current oversized human population is a product of fossil fuel-burning, and once that's over, human population will crash. This is called a die-off, and it's something that happens all the time: a population (say, of yeast in a vat of sugary liquid) consumes its food, and then dies off. A few hardy individuals linger on, and if you throw in a lump of sugar, they spring to life, start reproducing and the process takes off again.

Read the rest here...

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Authoritarianism, Class Warfare and the Advance of Neoliberal Austerity Policies

Some might question what this has to do with permaculture, however it well-describes conditions amidst which we are living and that will affect ALL our designs and plans. I doubt the author's "solution" will be sufficient but this article CLEARLY identifies the increasingly obvious social patterns we see unfolding all around us. A real lesson in "invisible" structures and pattern recognition. 

Riot police shadow a protest march against recent austerity measures in Montreal, November 29, 2014.Riot police shadow a protest march against recent austerity measures in Montreal, November 29, 2014. (Photo: Gerry Lauzon)

Henry A. Giroux | Authoritarianism, Class Warfare and the Advance of Neoliberal Austerity Policies

Monday, 05 January 2015 10:54 By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout | News Analysis
Right-wing calls for austerity suggest more than a market-driven desire to punish the poor, working class and middle class by distributing wealth upwards to the 1%. They also point to a politics of disposability in which the social provisions, public spheres and institutions that nourish democratic values and social relations are being dismantled, including public and higher education. Neoliberal austerity policies embody an ideology that produces both zones of abandonment and forms of social and civil death while also infusing society with a culture of increasing hardship. It also makes clear that the weapons of class warfare do not reside only in oppressive modes of state terrorism such as the militarization of the police, but also in policies that inflict misery, immiseration and suffering on the vast majority of the population.

Capitalism has learned to create host organisms and in the current historical conjuncture one of those organisms is young people, who are forced to live under the burden of crushing debt. Moreover in the midst of a widening inequality in wealth, income and power, workers, single mothers, youth, immigrants and poor people of color are being plunged into either low-paying jobs or a future without decent employment.  For the sick and elderly, it means choosing between food and medicine. Austerity now drives an exchange relationship in which the only value that matters is exchange value and for students that means paying increased tuition that generates profits for credit companies while allowing the state to lower taxes on the rich and mega corporations.
Under this regime of widening inequality that imposes enormous constraints on the choices that people can make, austerity measures function as a set of hyper-punitive policies and practices that produce massive amounts of suffering, rob people of their dignity and then humiliate them by suggesting that they bear sole responsibility for their plight. This is more than the scandal of a perverted form of neoliberal rationality; it is the precondition for an emerging authoritarian state with its proliferating extremist ideologies and its growing militarization and criminalization of all aspects of everyday life and social behavior. Richard D. Wolff has argued that "Austerity is yet another extreme burden imposed on the global economy by the capitalist crisis (in addition to the millions suffering unemployment, reduced global trade, etc.)." He is certainly right, but it is more than a burden imposed on the 99%; it is the latest stage of market warfare, class consolidation and a ruthless grab for power waged on the part of the neoliberal, global, financial elite who are both heartless and indifferent to the mad violence and unchecked misery they impose on much of humanity.

Read the rest at (no, really, read the whole thing)

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Toward Resilient Architectures I: Biology Lessons

Toward Resilient Architectures I: Biology Lessons

Part 2. Toward Resilient Architectures 2: Why Green Often Isn't
Part 3. Toward Resilient Architectures 3: How Modernism Got Square

The word “resilience” is bandied about these days among environmental designers. In some quarters, it’s threatening to displace another popular word, “sustainability.” This is partly a reflection of newsworthy events like Hurricane Sandy, adding to a growing list of other disruptive events like tsunamis, droughts, and heat waves.
We know that we can’t design for all such unpredictable events, but we could make sure our buildings and cities are better able to weather these disruptions and bounce back afterwards. At a larger scale, we need to be able to weather the shocks of climate change, resource destruction and depletion, and a host of other growing challenges to human wellbeing.
We need more resilient design, not as a fashionable buzzword, but out of necessity for our long-term survival.
An illustration of a resilient architecture: fossils of a marine ecosystem from the Permian period, about 250 to 300 million years ago. These ecosystems were resilient enough to endure dramatic changes over millions of years. Image by Professor Mark A. Wilson/Wikimedia
Aside from a nice idea, what is resilience really, structurally speaking? What lessons can we as designers apply towards achieving it? In particular, what can we learn from the evident resilience of natural systems? Quite a lot, it turns out.
Resilient and non-resilient systems
Let’s start by recognizing that we have incredibly complex and sophisticated technologies today, from power plants, to building systems, to jet aircraft. These technologies are, generally speaking, marvelously stable within their design parameters. This is the kind of stability that C. H. Holling, the pioneer of resilience theory in ecology, called “engineered resilience.” But they are often not resilient outside of their designed operating systems. Trouble comes with the unintended consequences that occur as “externalities,” often with disastrous results.

On the left, an over-concentration of large-sale components; on the right, a more resilient distributed network of nodes. Drawing by Nikos Salingaros.
A good example is the Fukushima nuclear reactor group in Japan. For years it functioned smoothly, producing reliable power for its region, and was a shining example of “engineered resilience.” But it did not have what Holling called “ecological resilience,” that is, the resilience to the often-chaotic disruptions that ecological systems have to endure. One of those chaotic disruptions was the earthquake and tsunami that engulfed the plant in 2010, causing a catastrophic meltdown. The Fukushima reactors are based on an antiquated U.S. design from the 1960s, dependent upon an electrical emergency cooling system. When the electricity failed, including the backup generators, the emergency control system became inoperative and the reactor cores melted. It was also a mistake (in retrospect) to centralize power production by placing six large nuclear reactors next to each other.
The trouble with chaotic disruptions is that they are inherently unpredictable. Actually we can predict (though poorly) the likelihood of an earthquake and tsunami relatively better compared to other natural phenomena. Think of how difficult it would be to predict the time and location of an asteroid collision, or more difficult yet, to prepare for the consequences. Physicists refer to this kind of chaos as a “far from equilibrium condition.” This is a problem that designers are beginning to take much more seriously, as we deal with more freakish events like Hurricane Sandy — actually a chaotic combination of three separate weather systems that devastated the Caribbean and the eastern coast of the U.S., in 2012.
Hurricane Sandy on 28 October 2012. NASA image courtesy LANCE MODIS Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC
As if these unforeseen dangers were not enough, we humans are contributing to the instability. An added complication is that we ourselves are now responsible for much of the chaos, in the form of our increasingly complex technology and its unpredictable interactions and disruptions. Climate change is one consequence of such disruptions, along with the complex and unstable infrastructures we have placed in vulnerable coastal locations. (In fact, Japan’s technological infrastructure has been heavily damaged over a much wider area by the chaotic “domino” effects of the Fukushima disaster.) Our technological intrusion into the biosphere has pushed natural systems into conditions that are far from equilibrium — and as a result, catastrophic disruptions are closer than ever.
Biology lessons
So what can we learn from biological systems? They are incredibly complex. Take, for instance, the rich complexity of a rainforest. It too generates complicated interactions among many billions of components. Yet many rainforests manage to remain stable over many thousands of years, in spite of countless disruptions and “shocks to the system.” Can we understand and apply the lessons of their structural characteristics?
It seems we can. Here are four such lessons extracted from distributed (non-centralized) biological systems that we will discuss in more detail:
1) These systems have an inter-connected network structure.
2) They feature diversity and redundancy (a totally distinct notion of “efficiency”).
3) They display a wide distribution of structures across scales, including fine-grained scales.
4) They have the capacity to self-adapt and “self-organize.” This generally (though not always) is achieved through the use of genetic information.
Map of the Internet: a paradigmatic resilient network in part because it is scale-free and redundant. Image by The Opte Project/Wikimedia
The Internet is a familiar human example of an inter-connected network structure. It was invented by the U.S. military as a way of providing resilient data communications in the event of attack. Biological systems also have inter-connected network structures, as we can see for example in the body’s separate blood and hormone circulation systems, or the brain’s connected pattern of neurons. Tissue damaged up to a point is usually able to regenerate, and damaged brains are often able to re-learn lost knowledge and skills by building up new alternative neural pathways. The inter-connected, overlapping, and adaptable patterns of relationships of ecosystems and metabolisms seem to be key to their functioning.
Focusing upon redundancy, diversity, and plasticity, biological examples contradict the extremely limited notion of “efficiency” used in mechanistic thinking. Our bodies have two kidneys, two lungs, and two hemispheres of the brain, one of which can still function when the other is damaged or destroyed. An ecosystem typically has many diverse species, any one of which can be lost without destroying the entire ecosystem. By contrast, an agricultural monoculture is highly vulnerable to just a single pest or other threat. Monocultures are terribly fragile. They are efficient only as long as conditions are perfect, but liable to catastrophic failure in the long term. (That may be a pretty good description of our current general state!)
Why is the distribution of structures across scales so important? For one thing, it’s a form of diversity. By contrast, a concentration at just a few scales (especially large scales) is more vulnerable to shocks. For another thing, the smaller scales that make up and support the larger scales facilitate regeneration and adaptation. When the small cells of a larger organ are damaged, it’s easy for that damaged tissue to grow back — rather like repairing the small bricks of a damaged wall.
Distribution of inter-connected elements across several scales, drawing by Nikos Salingaros
Self-organization and self-adaptation are also central attributes of living systems, and of their evolution. Indeed, this astonishing self-structuring capacity is one of the most important of biological processes. How does it work? We know that it requires networks, diversity, and distribution of structures across scales. But it also requires the ability to retain and build upon existing patterns, so that those gradually build up into more complex patterns.
Often this is done through the use of genetic memory. Structures that code earlier patterns are re-used and re-incorporated later. The most familiar example of this is, of course, DNA. The evolutionary transformation of organisms using DNA gradually built up a world that transitioned from viruses and bacteria, to vastly more complex organisms.
Applying the lessons to resilient human designs
How can we apply these structural lessons to create resilient cities, and to improve smaller vulnerable parts of cities by making them resilient? Developing the ideas from our previous list, resilient cities have the following characteristics:
1) They have inter-connected networks of pathways and relationships.They are not segregated into neat categories of use, type, or pathway, which would make them vulnerable to failure.
2) They have diversity and redundancy of activities, types, objectives, and populations. There are many different kinds of people doing many different kinds of things, any one of which might provide the key to surviving a shock to the system (precisely which can never be known in advance).
3) They have a wide distribution of scales of structure, from the largest regional planning patterns to the most fine-grained details. Combining with (1) and (2) above, these structures are diverse, inter-connected, and can be changed relatively easily and locally (in response to changing needs). They are like the small bricks of a building, easily repaired when damaged. (The opposite would be large expensive pre-formed panels that have to be replaced in whole.)
4) Following from (3), they (and their parts) can adapt and organize in response to changing needs on different spatial and temporal scales, and in response to each other. That is, they can “self-organize.” This process can accelerate through the evolutionary exchange and transformation of traditional knowledge and concepts about what works to meet the needs of humans, and the natural environments on which they depend.
Resilient cities evolve in a very specific manner. They retain and build upon older patterns or information, at the same time that they respond to change by adding novel adaptations. They almost never create total novelty, and almost always create only very selective novelty as needed. Any change is tested via selection, just as changes in an evolving organism are selected by how well the organism performs in its environment. This mostly rules out drastic, discontinuous changes. Resilient cities are thus “structure-preserving” even as they make deep structural transformations.
How do these elements contribute to resilient cities in practice, in an age of resource depletion and climate change? It’s easy to see that a city with networked streets and sidewalks is going to be more walkable and less car-dependent than a city with a rigid top-down hierarchy of street types, funneling all traffic into a limited number of “collectors” and “arterials.” Similarly, a city designed to work with a mix of uses is going to be more diverse and be able to better adapt to change than a city with rigidly separated monocultures.
A complex resilient system coordinates its multi-scale response to a disturbance on any single scale. Drawing by Nikos Salingaros
A city with a rich and balanced diversity of scales, especially including and encouraging the most fine-grained scales, is going to be more easily repairable and adaptable to new uses. It can withstand disruptions better because its responses can occur on any and all different levels of scale. The city uses the disruption to define a “pivot” on a particular scale, around which to structure a complex multi-scale response. And it’s more likely to be able to self-organize around new economic activities and new resources, if and when the old resources come to be in short supply.
The evolution of non-resilient cities
So where are we today? Many of our cities were (and still are) shaped by a model of city planning that evolved in an era of cheap fossil-fuel energy and a zeal for the mechanistic segregation of parts. The result is that in many respects we have a rigid non-resilient kind of city; one that, at best, has some “engineered resilience” towards a single objective, but certainly no “ecological resilience.” Response is both limited and expensive. Consider how the pervasive model of 20th century city planning was defined by these non-resilient criteria:
1) Cities are “rational” tree-like (top-down “dendritic”) structures, not only in roads and pathways, but also in the distribution of functions.
2) “Efficiency” demands the elimination of redundancy. Diversity is conceptually messy. Modernism wants visually clean and orderly divisions and unified groupings, which privilege the largest scale.
3) The machine age dictates our structural and tectonic limitations.According to the most influential theorists of the modernist city, mechanization takes command (Giedion); ornament is a crime (Loos); and the most important buildings are large-scale sculptural expressions of fine art (Le Corbusier, Gropius, et al.).
4) Any use of “genetic material” from the past is a violation of the machine-age zeitgeist, and therefore can only be an expression of reactionary politics; it cannot be tolerated. Novelty and neophilia are to be elevated and privileged above all design considerations. Structural “evolution” can only be allowed to occur within the abstracted discourse of visual culture, as it evaluates and judges human need by its own (specialized, ideological, aestheticizing) standards.
From the perspective of resilience theory, this can be seen as an effective formula for generating non-resilient cities. It is not an accident that the pioneers of such cities were, in fact, evangelists for a high-resource dependent form of industrialization, at a time when the understanding of such matters was far more primitive than now.
Here, for example, is the architect Le Corbusier, one of the most influential thinkers in all of modern planning, writing in 1935, and providing a blueprint for modern sprawl:
The cities will be part of the country; I shall live 30 miles from my office in one direction, under a pine tree; my secretary will live 30 miles away from it too, in the other direction, under another pine tree. We shall both have our own car. We shall use up tires, wear out road surfaces and gears, consume oil and gasoline. All of which will necessitate a great deal of work … enough for all.
Sadly, there is no longer enough for all! This relatively brief age of abundant fossil fuels — and the non-resilient urban architecture that it has spawned all over the globe — is rapidly drawing to a close. We must be prepared for what has to come next. From the perspective of resilience theory, the solutions are not going to be simple techno-fixes, as so many naively believe. What is required is a deeper analysis and restructuring of the system structure: admittedly not an easy thing to achieve since it doesn’t make money short-term.
Postscript: a lesson from our own evolution
People tend to be carried along by the present, and put both past and future out of their mind. Even in our information-glutted age, the past is remote and abstract—just another set of images like any movie. And so we ignore where we have come from, and the path that brought us here to our marvelous technological culture. We are ill prepared to see where we must go next. For our techno-consumerist culture, tomorrow will bring no surprises.
But new research in anthropology, anthropogeny, and genetics suggests that we humans are, quite literally, creatures of climate change. Thanks to ingenious detective work, we now know that 195,000 years ago, our species very nearly became extinct — down to hardly more than 1,000 survivors clinging to the southern African coast, as a mega-drought swept that continent. Our evident response was to diversify, and to develop many new sources of food as well as new technologies for acquiring them: fishhooks, barbs, baskets, urns, and other innovations. More complex language probably followed, allowing us to coordinate more sophisticated strategies for hunting and gathering.
10,000 years ago, it now appears, we adapted once again to a mini-ice age, prompting us to innovate with new agricultural technologies, and new forms of settlement around them. These innovations arose more or less simultaneously in many parts of the then-disconnected world, suggesting that the trigger was very likely the climate.
Now we are facing the third great adaptation of our history to climate change. But this time it is we, ourselves, who have triggered it with our own technologies. If we are going to adapt successfully, we will need to understand the opportunities to innovate yet again, in the way we design and operate our technology. Our comfortable lifestyle (in the wealthy West, and among those socioeconomic classes that can afford to copy us) is significantly less resilient than most people would care to admit, or even dare think about. If we are going to continue our so-far remarkably successful run as a technological civilization, we had better take the lessons of resilience theory to heart.
AUTHORS’ NOTE: With this post we begin a new five-part series on the concept of resilience, and how designers can apply its insights.
Michael Mehaffy is an urbanist and critical thinker in complexity and the built environment. He is a practicing planner and builder, and is known for his many projects as well as his writings. He has been a close associate of the architect and software pioneer Christopher Alexander. Currently he is a Sir David Anderson Fellow at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, a Visiting Faculty Associate at Arizona State University; a Research Associate with the Center for Environmental Structure, Chris Alexander’s research center founded in 1967; and a strategic consultant on international projects, currently in Europe, North America and South America.
Nikos A. Salingaros is a mathematician and polymath known for his work onurban theory, architectural theory, complexity theory, and design philosophy. He has been a close collaborator of the architect and computer software pioneer Christopher Alexander. Salingaros published substantive research on Algebras, Mathematical Physics, Electromagnetic Fields, and Thermonuclear Fusion before turning his attention to Architecture and Urbanism. He still is Professor of Mathematics at the University of Texas at San Antonioand is also on the Architecture faculties of universities in ItalyMexico, and The Netherlands.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Three Lists: What Has Been Lost, What Has Been Given, and What Has Been Saved

Three Lists: What Has Been Lost, What Has Been Given, and What Has Been Saved
“Once I spoke the language of the flowers… / How did it go? / How did it go?” – Shel Silverstein
There is a list.
A dreadful list.
A list that will break your damn heart in half if you have the courage to look at it.
A list that will sap your strength.
It is a list so numbingly large
That nobody knows more than a tiny fraction of it.
A list that just keeps on growing.
Faster and faster and faster and faster.
So fast that nobody could ever keep up.
-- It is a list of things that have been lost.
Of things that have been broken, burnt, wasted, ruined, disappeared.
Of things abused, eroded, corrupted, forgotten, sacrificed, discarded.
Of things disfigured, suffocated, poisoned, fucked up, shattered, and killed.
Things lost,
Lost by a culture that would not acknowledge limits,
That would not acknowledge debts, dependencies, or connections.
A thankless culture.
A culture that arrogantly and violently refused to see, hear, feel, touch, or taste
The world that gave birth to it just yesterday.
-- It is a list that will sap your strength.
-- It is a list that will break your damn heart.
But there is also a second list.
A breathtakingly beautiful list.
A list that will heal your heart if you have the sense to look at it.
It is a list that has been getting smaller, smaller, smaller every year.
But a list still so gloriously large
That nobody knows more than a tiny fraction of it.
-- It is a list of things that have been given.
Of things that grow, run, swim, eat, blow, wiggle, rustle, clack, flow, slide, and laugh.
Of things that fly, cuddle, fight, howl, slither, hunt, hide, drift, ooze, sleep, and love.
Of things that are strong, deep, soft, tiny, smooth, hot, playful, slow, and hungry.
Of things that are green, brown, blue, thorny, large, dry, cold, fragile, wet, and fast.
Things given,
Given now to us, free
By a world that only asks us to see, hear, feel, touch, and taste them.
By a world that only asks us to take membership among that list.
A world that gave birth to us all, before time began.
-- It is a list that will heal your heart.
And there is a third list.
A much smaller list,
But a list that will give you strength if you have the wisdom
To look for it, to find it, to learn it, to live it.
It is a list dangerously small
Because so much has been forgotten.
And because nobody anymore knows more than a tiny fraction of it.
And it is a list that is still shrinking.
Faster and faster and faster.
Until it is almost gone.
But it is not gone.
-- It is a list of things that have been saved.
Of things that have been mended, nurtured, passed down, remembered
Of things taken care of, tended, loved, watched over
Of ways of talking, ways of knowing, ways of seeing, ways of feeling, and ways of loving
Of customs, rituals, practices, seeds, breeds, tools, skills, and prayers.
Things saved.
It is a list that teaches us how to belong to this world.
A list that teaches us how to live in this world without destroying it.
A list that teaches us how to live with each other without destroying ourselves.
Passed down from cultures that celebrated limits, that worshipped them.
Thankful cultures.
Cultures that awoke each morning to see, hear, feel, touch, or taste
The world that gave birth to them.
A world that is now slipping away from us.
A world that will slip away from us if we don’t hold onto it
With all the strength we can summon
In our hearts, in our minds, and in our bodies.
It is a list that will give you this strength.
So in this time of catastrophe,
Perhaps we should turn to these lists.
And teach our children from them.
So that we may live.