Tag Archives: sustainability

Fritjof Capra: the hidden connections

Fritjof CapraIn this book I propose to extend the new understanding of life that has emerged from complexity theory to the social domain. To do so, I present a conceptual framework that integrates life’s biological , cognitive and social dimensions. My aim is not only to offer a unified view of life, mind and society, but also to develop a coherent, systemic approach to some of the critical issues of our time. (xii)

I always worry about coherent systemic approaches to all things, just as I worry about the straightforward application of theories evolved through physical and life sciences to social science — they often throw up interesting things, as Emergence did, but still they remain problematic. Fritjof Capra does not escape my critique entirely, but his coherent, systematic approach is based upon an understanding of networks, of relationships between things being as fundamental as things themselves (how dialectical of him really, though there is not a ounce of dialectics otherwise), of constant change and never a full knowledge of the whole, of humility in scientific inquiry, of anti-capitalism in the sense that we must substitute new values for that of profit above all that exists now and has brought us almost to to the brink of destruction.

He is also rigorous and smart, and my critiques of the sections on social science are offset by my appreciation that he actually read and grappled with Manuel Castells’ three volumes on networks.

I also like that he tries to bring together the material and the social — the geographers are missing from his account, but I forgive him, as I too think this is key.

My extension of the systems approach to the social domain explicitly includes the material world. this is unusual, because traditionally social scientists have not been very interested in the world of matter…In the future, this strict division will no longer be possible, because the key challenge of this new century — for social scientists, natural scientists and everyone else — will be to build ecologically sustainable communities, designed in such a way that their technologies and social institutions — their material and social structures — do not interfere with nature’s inherent ability to sustain life. (xv)

Clearly how we think about cities, housing, transportation, infrastructure and &c. are key to survival of ourselves as a species and the planet as we know it now. Of course, if we destroy ourselves, I have every confidence that life will continue to emerge and flourish. Life is pretty amazing.

The first section of this book is on life itself, with some thought-provoking concepts, like autopoiesis – ‘self-making’. Capra writes that on a cellular level, life is present where there is both physical boundary and a metabolic network. Living systems as autopoietic networks ‘means that the phenomenon of life has to be understood as a property of the system as a whole’. (9)

For a long while scientists thought genes fixed, determinative, this idea fitted so neatly into racist and classist and sexist ideas of place and station, our understandings of society. I love, love, how that has all been turned on its head, with little fixed at all:

A key insight of the new understanding of life has been that biological forms and functions are not simply determined by a genetic blueprint but are emergent properties of the entire epigenetic network. (10)

I love too, the idea of emergence, that things are created through a collective relationship, and often great than the whole:

This spontaneous emergence of order at critical points of instability is one of the most important concepts of the new understanding of life. It is technically known as self-organization and is often referred to simply as ’emergence’. (12)

He comes back to this, writing

The phenomenon of emergence takes place at critical points of instability that arise from fluctuations in the environment, amplified by feedback loops. (102)

He describes, for example, the crisis faced by quantum physicists in 1920s as their experiments and observations pushed the limits of our understandings of reality. It is something we know today, without being able to well conceive of what it must have felt like. Perhaps my favourite thing in the whole book was this amazing quote from Werner Heisenberg, on the cost of emergence, and how it is in fact greater than any one man but emerges from collective work and thinking:

I remember discussions with Bohr which went through many hours till very late at night and ended almost in despair; and when at the end of the discussion I went alone for a walk in the neighboring park I repeated to myself again and again the question: Can nature possibly be so absurd as it seemed to us in these atomic experiments? (103)

They did not stop the experiments but continued on, pushing against the certainties of our knowledge. Allowing that the world might be greater, wilder than we had ever imagined it. It is the findings of quantum physics, in some ways, that have opened up every other field. They have shown the world is not as we thought it was, that by the very act of studying it we enter into a relationship with it and thereby change or fix its behaviour.

In the very simplest of ways, biology reminds us that it is in the relationships between one thing and another that some of their properties are determined:

When carbon, oxygen and hydrogen atoms bond in a certain way to form sugar, the resulting compound has a sweet taste. The sweetness resides neither in the C, nor in the O, nor in the H, it resides in the patterns that emerges from their interaction. It is an emergent property. Moreover, strictly speaking, the sweetness is not a property of the chemical bonds. It is a sensory experience that arises when the sugar molecules interact with the chemistry of our taste buds… (36)

He brings up Saussure here, as you would, the structuralist view that words obtain meaning only in relation to other words, to phrases. No Voloshinov though, to further complicate things with the ways that meanings are further contested.  Ah well.

I also like being reminded of the wonder and unimaginable timescale of our emergence.

memory became encoded in macromolecules, and ‘the membrane bounded chemical networks acquired all the essential characteristics of today’s bacterial cells. This major signpost in the origin of life established itself perhaps 3.8 billion years ago. (24)

So I suppose in the great scheme of things it is not so terrible that we have been stuck imagining things as static and fixed for some time, when in fact they are growing and learning.

The decisive advance of the systems view of life has been to abandon the Cartesian view of mind as a thing, and to realize that mind and consciousness are not things but processes. (29)

Being a social scientist (of a sort, I suppose), I found the sections on the social a little less interesting in terms of expanding my own thinking, but still quite interesting in thinking about how someone from the hard sciences approaches some of those topics we wrestle with. Power was the most interesting, so much has been written on power, Capra’s choices of definition and source are quite fascinating:

One of the most striking characteristics of social reality is the phenomenon of power. In the words of economist John Kenneth Galbraith, ‘The exercise of power, the submission of some to the will of others, is inevitable in modern society; nothing whatever is accomplished without it…Power can be socially malign; it is also socially essential.’ The essential role of power in social organizations is linked to inevitable conflicts of interest. Because of our ability to affirm preferences and make choices accordingly, conflicts of interest will appear in any human community, and power is the means by which these conflicts are resolved. (76-77)

The origin of power, then, lies in culturally defined positions of authority on which the community relies for the resolution of conflicts and for decisions about how to act wisely and effectively. In other words, true authority consists in empowering others to act. (77)

That is an interesting definition, one with which many a social scientist might be happy to contest (or better said, complicate). No Foucault, no Lukes or Gaventa, no Guevara, no Agamben. There’s a key liberal in that list I am forgetting, but the list of people writing about power is in truth a very long one. Though few would deny the truth of this:

Thus, power plays a central role in the emergence of social structures. (78)

I like this boiling down of things to simple definitions. If only because I then want to complicate them anew.

Social systems produce nonmaterial as well as material structures. The processes that sustain a social network are processes of communication, which generate shared meaning and rules of behaviour (the network’s culture), as well as a shared body of knowledge. The rules of behaviour whether formal or informal, are called social structures. (79)

Back to dialectics

The biological structure of an organism corresponds to the material infrastructure of a society, which embodies the society’s culture. As the culture evolves, so does its infrastructure — they coevolve through continual mutual influences. (80)

There is a strange section about corporations, and management’s interest in his work as a way to repair these massive and ailing behemoths. I feel that management, like science, once held a very precise view of our ability to impose our will on the world which hasn’t quite shifted fully.

To run properly, a machine must be controlled by its operators, so that it will function according to their instructions. Accordingly, the whole thrust of classical management theory is to achieve efficient operations through top-down control. Living beings, on the other hand, act autonomously. They can never be controlled like machines. To try and do so is to deprive them of their aliveness. (91)

But there are some looking at how autonomous human beings create for themselves the networks and support they require. Capra cites Etienne Wenger, and his definition of ‘communities of practice’ as

self-generating social networks, referring to the common context of meaning rather than to the pattern of of organization through which the meaning is generated. (94)

A community of practice has three main features: ‘mutual engagement of its members, a joint enterprise and, over time, a shared repertoire of routines, tacit rules of conduct and knowledge. (95)

These are networks that emerge, take on lives and structures without (at least in the beginning) formal directives or top-down demands. They have the ability to be horizontal. Capra writes:

Although it may seem that in an ecosystem some species are more powerful than others, the concept of power is not appropriate, because non-human species (with the exception of some primates) do not force individuals to act in accordance with preconceived goals. There is dominance, but it is always acted out within a larger context of cooperation…The manifold species in an ecosystem do not form hierarchies, as is often erroneously stated, but exist in networks nested within networks. (133)

After this framing of the key nature of networks and relationships in both biology and social science, the book moves towards what sustainability should look like, how we can achieve it based on this new knowledge.

One of the subtitles is ‘Life as the Ultimate Commodity’ (174) — I had not realised in my youth that the Human Genome Project was actually a race against time, a social collective trying to map the genome for public knowledge before a consortium of corporations did it first so that they could patent it. They won, I had no idea of the drama of that victory, or how much was saved. Capra writes:

underlying all evaluations is the basic principle of unfettered capitalism: that money-making should always be valued higher than democracy, human rights, environmental protection or any other value. Changing the game means, first and foremost, changing this basic principle. (185)

In some ways, the new nature of genetics we are discovering is on our side in this, the patenting of genes doesn’t work very well given that there has been

A profound shift of emphasis, from the structure of genetic sequences to the organization of metabolic networks, from genetics to epigenetics is taking place. (143)

It doesn’t stop Monsanto and others from trying, however. Still, this is a call for a new kind of science, one that does not seek arrogant mastery but works with the concept of emergence:

We can imagine a radically different kind of biotechnology. It would start with the desire to learn from nature rather than control her, using nature as a mentor rather than merely as a source of raw materials. Instead of treating the web of life as a commodity, we would respect it as the context of our existence.

This is key to our survival, as is understanding sustainability:

The concept of sustainability was introduced in the early 1980s by Lester Brown, founder of the Worldwatch Institute, who defined a sustainable society as one that is able to satisfy its needs without diminishing the chances of future generations. (200)

Specifically, there are six principles of ecology that are critical to sustaining life: networks, cycles, solar energy, partnership, diversity and dynamic balance. (201)

Above all, sustainability is achieved through a network of healthy interdependent relationships:

In order to combine respect for these human rights with the ethics of ecological sustainability, we need to realize that sustainability — in ecosystems as well as in human society — is not an individual property but a property of an entire web of relationships: it involves a whole community. A sustainable human community interacts with other living systems — human and nonhuman — in ways that enable those systems to live and develop according to their nature. In the human realm sustainability is fully consistent with the respect of cultural integrity, cultural diversity and the basic right of communities to self-determination and self-organization. (188)

How do we get there? You know I liked this:

According to Sociologist Manuel Castells, social change in the society does not originate within the traditional institutions of civil society but develops from identities based on the rejection of society’s dominant values — patriarchy, the domination and control of nature, unlimited economic growth and material consumption, and so on. (191)

We build connections, networks, challenge capitalism and arrogance. We look to increase diversity, decrease consumption and above all increase our own ability to work together to increase our abilities to collectively change and shape our world.

Balzac: City, Country & Speculation in Le Pere Goriot

I enjoyed Father Goriot more than I thought I would.

Stately Paris ignores the existence of these faces bleached by moral or physical suffering; but, then, Paris is in truth an ocean that no line can plumb. You may survey its surface and describe it; but no matter how numerous and painstaking the toilers in this sea, there will always be lonely and unexplored regions in its depths, caverns unknown, flowers and pearls and monsters of the deep overlooked or forgotten by the divers of literature. The Maison Vauquer is one of these curious monstrosities.

Reading this rush of French literature I realised just how anglocentric I had become when it came to anything written over a hundred years ago — particularly in the 1800s, I was too busy reading Dickens there for a while.

There is so much to explore here, not least exciting (well, actually, to my mind it was the least exciting) being the story itself. It’s a good enough story and after so many depressing and ‘realistic’ novels (I just finished something by Zola, my god), I confess I loved being told up front that everything ended happy ever after, though you never see it all work out. I was rather fascinated that seeing how it all works out had quite a nice amount of dramatic tension. Zola has a dig at melodrama, though this was also published in serial form in 1834-35 (note to self to look more into publishing forms) it has the feel of something written as a whole. This is before The Mysteries of Paris, so he’s not talking about that when he writes:

That word drama has been somewhat discredited of late; it has been overworked and twisted to strange uses in these days of dolorous literature; but it must do service again here, not because this story is dramatic in the restricted sense of the word, but because some tears may perhaps be shed intra et extra muros before it is over.

I feel that this sentence still holds true. Funny that.

Perhaps what I liked most is that, like Dickens, this is a window on a physical world long disappeared, and Paris is revealed in an immensity of detail that engages all of the senses:

Will any one without the walls of Paris understand it? It is open to doubt. The only audience who could appreciate the results of close observation, the careful reproduction of minute detail and local color, are dwellers between the heights of Montrouge and Montmartre, in a vale of crumbling stucco watered by streams of black mud, a vale of sorrows which are real and joys too often hollow; but this audience is so accustomed to terrible sensations, that only some unimaginable and well-neigh impossible woe could produce any lasting impression there.

In a way I think those of us without the walls of Paris might enjoy it more as we an enter another place and another way of life and we are not trapped there like so many of the protagonists. The centre of the story is this boarding house, the lives of those on the edges of most desperate poverty that are still called middle-class — it is descriptions like this that make me realise just how far everyday life for most of us has come, the comforts we take for granted. But this is class and city as prison:

PROCESSION IN FRONT OF SAINTE-GENEVIÈVE Meunier, fecit (Carnavalet Museum)
PROCESSION IN FRONT OF SAINTE-GENEVIÈVE
Meunier, fecit (Carnavalet Museum)

The lodging-house is Mme. Vauquer’s own property. It is still standing in the lower end of the Rue Nueve-Sainte-Genevieve, just where the road slopes so sharply down to the Rue de l’Arbalete, that wheeled traffic seldom passes that way, because it is so stony and steep. This position is sufficient to account for the silence prevalent in the streets shut in between the dome of the Pantheon and the dome of the Val-de-Grace, two conspicuous public buildings which give a yellowish tone to the landscape and darken the whole district that lies beneath the shadow of their leaden-hued cupolas.

In that district the pavements are clean and dry, there is neither mud nor water in the gutters, grass grows in the chinks of the walls. The most heedless passer-by feels the depressing influences of a place where the sound of wheels creates a sensation; there is a grim look about the houses, a suggestion of a jail about those high garden walls. A Parisian straying into a suburb apparently composed of lodging-houses and public institutions would see poverty and dullness, old age lying down to die, and joyous youth condemned to drudgery. It is the ugliest quarter of Paris, and, it may be added, the least known. But, before all things, the Rue Nueve-Sainte-Genevieve is like a bronze frame for a picture for which the mind cannot be too well prepared by the contemplation of sad hues and sober images. Even so, step by step the daylight decreases, and the cicerone’s droning voice grows hollower as the traveler descends into the Catacombs. The comparison holds good! Who shall say which is more ghastly, the sight of the bleached skulls or of dried-up human hearts?

Yet still, for all this value-laden description, this place is still far more closely tied to the country than any city I know of today. This too I find fascinating, thinking not just about food chains and how we sustain ourselves, but also perceptions of things:

The central space between the walls is filled with artichokes and rows of pyramid fruit-trees, and surrounded by a border of lettuce, pot-herbs, and parsley. Under the lime-trees there are a few green-painted garden seats and a wooden table, and hither, during the dog-days, such of the lodgers as are rich enough to indulge in a cup of coffee come to take their pleasure, though it is hot enough to roast eggs even in the shade.

Imagine this written today, in terms of celebration of fresh, organic and local produce, self-sufficiency, lowered carbon footprints. But wait, there’s more:

Behind the house a yard extends for some twenty feet, a space inhabited by a happy family of pigs, poultry, and rabbits; the wood-shed is situated on the further side, and on the wall between the wood-shed and the kitchen window hangs the meat-safe, just above the place where the sink discharges its greasy streams. The cook sweeps all the refuse out through a little door into the Rue Nueve-Sainte-Genevieve, and frequently cleanses the yard with copious supplies of water, under pain of pestilence.

It’s like a little city farm, this lodging house. In comparison with my own lodging it seems potentially idyllic once I strip Balzac’s adjectives away. Though I suppose it might have been fairly ripe, especially in the summer.

I cease to feel that so strongly when we venture inside — I love this description of smell, always so evocative of a kind of place, joining different buildings together in the imagination:

The first room exhales an odor for which there is no name in the language, and which should be called the odeur de pension. The damp atmosphere sends a chill through you as you breathe it; it has a stuffy, musty, and rancid quality; it permeates your clothing; after-dinner scents seem to be mingled in it with smells from the kitchen and scullery and the reek of a hospital.

In short, there is no illusory grace left to the poverty that reigns here; it is dire, parsimonious, concentrated, threadbare poverty; as yet it has not sunk into the mire, it is only splashed by it, and though not in rags as yet, its clothing is ready to drop to pieces.

Meet it’s owner — and the brilliance of this disagreeable little description:

She is an oldish woman, with a bloated countenance, and a nose like a parrot’s beak set in the middle of it; her fat little hands (she is as sleek as a church rat) and her shapeless, slouching figure are in keeping with the room that reeks of misfortune, where hope is reduced to speculate for the meanest stakes.

This is the world inhabited by those trying to emerge from poverty into the world up above, and those on the opposite trajectory, sinking tragically down. The world of the renter, at the mercy of others and unsupported by property. Perhaps that is the defining sadness of this place, the flow of transience, hopes, more often illness and despair. This is a place though, where I’d love to be able to jump back in time, experience, decide for myself.

I’d like also to meet the cat Mistigris.

It’s a fictional road of course, but there is a whole website dedicated to finding Balzac’s Paris I’d like to return to.

Apart from the relationship between home and food and renting and owning and sustainability, there is a later fascinating section in here about the forces moving to destroy places just such as this and reshape the whole of the city. Here is Madame Nucingen explaining the nature of her vile husband’s work:

Do you know what he means by speculations? He buys up land in his own name, then he finds men of straw to run up houses upon it. These men make a bargain with a contractor to build the houses, paying them by bills at long dates; then in consideration of a small sum they leave my husband in possession of the houses, and finally slip through the fingers of the deluded contractors by going into bankruptcy. The name of the firm of Nucingen has been used to dazzle the poor contractors. I saw that. I noticed, too, that Nucingen had sent bills for large amounts to Amsterdam, London, Naples, and Vienna, in order to prove if necessary that large sums had been paid away by the firm. How could we get possession of those bills?

What a novel this is for an urbanist, though I know I am among many to mine its treasures as David Harvey’s book on Paris has a whole chapter on Balzac. Still, for my own pleasure there is more to come.

For more on writing cities…

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Graham Haughton’s Principles of Environmental Equity

We’re in environmental crisis. Everyone knows it, though maybe only really deep down. Everyone knows cities are central to it. I’m coming back to Graham Haughton, because the more I read in general, the more I feel that what he presented here encapsulates a helpful way of thinking about urban sustainability. A term now used to mean all kinds of things, a term thrown around happily by the World Bank and the IMF even, but not defined this way:

For humans, it specifically requires achieving a position that allows us to live in harmony with the rest of the planet, so that we neither destroy ourselves nor the systems that support lifeforms. The essential threat to sustainable development is that the human species is attempting to live beyond the capacity of the earth to sustain both humans and other species, most notably as we destroy the natural balance of critical natural protective systems… Moving towards sustainable development requires economic and social systems that encourage environmental stewardship of resources for the long term, acknowledging the interdependency of social justice, economic well-being, and environmental stewardship. (234)

We need some definitions of this off course, and I so much appreciate this work in bringing environmental justice  together with a more mainstream environmental discourse around sustainability that often never mentions justice at all. I think this is key in thinking about cities, because the environmental justice movement in the U.S. has primarily been an urban movement. In the words of Robert Bullard:

We are saying that environmental justice incorporates the idea that we are just as much concerned about wetlands, birds and wilderness areas, but we’re also concerned with urban habitats, where people live in cities, about reservations, about things that are happening along the US-Mexican border, about children that are being poisoned by lead in housing and kids playing outside in contaminated playgrounds. So we have had to struggle to get these issues on the radar on a lot of the large environmental groups.

I think providing a framework, a set of principles by which different approaches to imagining how we shape the city can be judged, is a good way to do this. Graham Haughton proposes the following:

  1. Intergenerational equity, or the principle of futurity as it is sometimes known.

  2. Intra-generational equity, or, more generally, contemporary social equity or social justice — the emphasis here is on the wider conception of social justice–that is, seeking to address the underlying causes of social injustice, not simply dealing with redistributive measures. (235)

  3. Geographical equity or transfrontier responsibility. Transfrontier responsibility requires that local policies should be geared to solving global as well as local environmental problems.

  4. Procedural equity. This principle holds that regulatory and participatory systems should be devised and applied to ensure that all people are treated openly and fairly.

  5. Inter-species equity, which places the survival of other species on an equal basis to the survival of humans. (236)

I’m not sure that I fully agree with how he defines or expands upon all of these–particularly thinking about procedural equity, how participation and direct democracy fold into this and how that is managed–but I think they are precisely the things that matter. This is where discussion should start, when most of the time I think it falls far short of this and gets us nowhere fast. Reading this from 1999 is like reading Jane Jacobs, filling me with frustration that nothing seems to have moved in the meantime, that discourse proceeds and so does practice and our cities are crawling along to where they need to be — if they are not falling back.

Justice? We still have a hell of a long way to go. And every day it is still poor communities, especially communities of colour that bear most of the costs. That will only get worse as crisis grows. To return to Bullard:

Environmental justice is not a social program, it’s not affirmative actions, its about justice. And until we get justice in environmental protection, justice in terms of enforcement of regulations, we will not even talk about achieving sustainable development or sustainability issues until we talk about justice. A lot of the groups that are trying to address these issues in the absence of dealing with race may be fooling themselves.

And to return to the importance of cities, and the reality of cities now:

So we can’t just let cities buckle under and fall into this sinkhole. We have to talk about this convergence of urban, suburban and rural and talk about the quality of life that exists and talk about the issue of urban sprawl. Basically everybody is impacted by sprawl. People who live in cities face disinvestment, in suburbs with the trees being knocked down, chewing up farmland. So you talk about this convergence, a lot of it is happening now, but it has to happen with the understanding that we have to include everybody, that it has to be an inclusive movement or it won’t work.

So to move forward to practical solutions. I like Haughton’s look at the possibilities that have been put forward — in more dispassionate terms than the fire with which a seasoned and passionate campaigner (as well as academic) can speak in an interview.

Self-Reliant Cities

The self-reliant city approach centers on attempts to reduce the negative external impacts of a city beyond its own bioregion, seeking to: reduce overall resource consumption; use local resources where possible; develop renewable resource-based consumption habits, always in a sustainable fashion; minimizee waste streams; and deal with pollution in situ rather than sending it to other regions (Morris 1982, 1990). (237)

Ooh you say, bioregion. You like the sound of that. So do I. I like most things about this idea.

The bioregion is usually seen as a central construct, replacing artificial political boundaries with natural boundaries, based typically on river catchment areas, geological features, or distinctive ecosystem types, although it is readily conceded that precise boundaries are usually difficult to define (Register 1987; Andruss et al. 1990). (237)

This also envisages a more democratic politics, which is part of the vision of Murray Bookchin (who I’ve read some of, not enough, but going all the way back to Kropotkin and his vision of co-operative society founded on a federation of non-hierarchical groups) and Callenbach’s Ecotopia (I still haven’t read this, I should, I will. It’s short). The danger is that they could become too isolated, folded in upon themselves. That they cease to contribute to the global work required to live well on the planet.

One city alone won’t save us, can’t alone challenge and transform many of the terrible oppressions operating at higher levels. We’re at war, we’re exploiting the resources and the labour of the world, we’re destroying forests and wetlands and … well. To return to cities, it would be nice to have one or two really trying to look to.

Redesigning Cities

This is what we do in the meantime, right? This is the dominant approach — just fix what is broken:

In essence the environmental problems of cities are seen to be linked intrinsically to poor design of the urban fabric, in particular 20th century additions predicated on the assumption of cheap and readily available fossil fuels for homes, work, and transport. Of special concern are the problems associated with the rise of the motor vehicle, from the spread of low-density residential development to the need to build substantial specialized infrastructure, including road systems and parking lots.

This focuses on the city itself, making it better, more liveable, more vibrant, without much attempt at a better integration with nature and the wider region like the first, much less global connections. The other question is just how well this can tackle the social and economic justice issues. You can see a design approach possibly taking the foreground, and of course new urbanism and smart growth that all too often (though not necessarily I suppose) have served as partial justifications for the mass and brutal displacement of the poor and people of colour from central city areas as part of redevelopment. Reshuffling the urban deck hardly seems ideal, but this approach has real trouble tackling the underlying causes of social injustice, particularly racism and, I would argue, capitalism itself. It’s probably not going to.

Externally Dependent Cities

The externally dependent city essentially follows the conventional or neoclassical view that environmental problems can be addressed effectively by improving the workings of
the free market. (238)

He gives this approach a lot more attention than I would, because honestly, look at the world. Just look at it. If the free market, or the government-supported and funded neoliberal market even, addressed environmental problems we would have nothing to worry about. Those semi-socialist Scandinavian countries with their heavily managed economies and regulated industries would be venomous and polluted cesspools, and the developing world where unregulated economic growth is being pushed and funded by the IMF and World Bank would be paradise, just like England was in the middle of the industrial revolution.

Fair Share Cities

The final approach to sustainable urban development is one I term fair share cities, which sets out to ensure that environmental assets are traded fairly, with a particular view to ensuring that exchange docs not take place in ways that degrade donor environments, economies, and societies.

This is about flows of resource exploitation, flows of waste. An equal distribution of benefits and costs. Yet ultimately this hardly seems to bring us anywhere  near an actual goal of becoming sustainable, actually minimizing our weight upon the earth, actually avoiding environmental crisis. Just spreading our weight evenly. I don’t even quite understand this as an approach, it’s more like a neoliberal shell game, but perhaps I am missing something.

Ultimately, the trouble is, much as I like the first option best, none of these go far enough do they. And even though it does not go far enough,  how do you create a self-reliant city from a terrible sprawling one?  I sit and think about what could be done to make LA just for example, to make it sustainable. Land reform I think. A total redistribution of wealth and an end to segregation. A mass construction of social housing in straw bale and adobe, in all parts of the city. Perhaps a return to the old urban form of wheel and spokes that facilitated walking and public transport, a clustering around train stations and the land returned to gardens in between. Perhaps slowly, over generations, I would not wish the trauma of eviction on anyone. A tearing down of walls and erasing of municipal boundaries and tax shelters. An end to suburban subsidies. Some return to the mixed use and narrow streets of the old pueblo. Pedestrianisation. More and more and more public transport. Bike lanes and more bike lanes. A tearing up of concrete and freeing of the river and reclamation of the parks and empty lots. Solar panels everywhere and good jobs making them (but that shit still has to be mined somewhere else, so we need more ideas). A mad planting of the right wildflowers for bees, vegetables, fruit trees. A living wage. Free education. Bilingual education. Sanctuary.

Dreaming is nice. Sometimes I wonder, why not? What could we do if we tried? Yet even with imagination unleashed, can these things happen just at the level of the city? Probably not.

Still, I think I like these principles of equity as way to collectively imagine and then judge our imaginings for moving forward with, in steps as big as we can make them.

For more posts on environmental justice…

The East India Company and the Natural World

22572408Given the single-minded purpose of the East India Company, it is hardly surprising that it should put everything in service of its profits — everything. I am only now learning the full contours of its terrible legacy: the millions dead of famine in Bengal, the industries destroyed, the conflict fomented, the culture and knowledge denigrated, the uprisings horribly put down. Impossible to summarise the damage that transformed Bengal from one of the wealthiest regions to one of the poorest or what that has meant to its people.

Could the colonised natural world have survived such an onslaught untouched?

What I appreciated about many of these stories, is that nature, on the whole, held its own. But not every time.

Frustratingly for me, being fresh and new and autodidacting this subject of Empire and the natural world, the principal theorisation for much of this, and the work that all of these authors are building upon, lies here: Green imperialism : colonial expansion, tropical island Edens and the origins of environmentalism, 1600-1860 by Richard Grove. The strength of this collection lies in the well-researched detail and the breadth of subjects and disciplines represented. Not so useful for a theoretical overview though, so I am looking forward to Grove.

Still, this was enjoyable and I pulled out a few quotes, like this from the intro by Alan Lester, on John Mackenzie who I also have not yet read:

‘Rather than thinking of core and periphery as two interacting but discrete spatial containers, each maintaining its own essential identity, he saw that one of these containers was actually constituted by the other’ (2).

That seems common sense to me, perhaps more in the sense of each acting upon the other…but I’ve never much liked ideas of core and periphery. CLR James is most effective in theorising the intensity of these connections in a different way through his work on the Haitian Revolution and cricket for example. Interesting, though, to think of scale as socially constructed projects:

Like gender, race and class in post-structuralist historical thinking, we might productively think of scales as entities constructed through particular projects with real effects in the world. These are the ‘effects of networked practices’. (12)

Not sure what I can do with that, but interesting.

Deepak Kumar is another among several writers here who seem to me to be forced to state the obvious:

Colonial discourse, it is true, is neither dictated nor possessed entirely by the colonizers. Postcolonial theorists find ample instances of ‘ambivalence’, ‘hybridization’, and ‘mimicry’ within it. (20)

But I loved how the various works in here explored this through diaries, log books, letters. They traced the movements not just of human beings (and some of their words echoing from the past have an unexpected emotive power), but of plants and animals, both from the colonies to London, but also from colony to colony. I sit here in my London room, which is full of cactus because a piece of me will always long for the desert, and I wonder that academics had to ‘discover’ the way that people traded both within and without officially ordered botanical practices in familiar crops and familiar plants, to fill their homes and gardens, their medicine cabinets and their bellies. This in spite of the undeniable fact that ‘official’ botanical knowledge and classification resided in the major city of the colonizing power. Still, it is fascinating to read of the ways New Zealand was landscaped along broad and sweeping lines first practiced in India, and the close trading ties between the two that did not involve the home country at all.

I liked the examination of the roles of men of science, both amateur and professional:

They had a dual mandate, one to serve the state, the other to extend the frontiers of knowledge. The state claimed superiority in terms of structure, power, race and so on. Science claimed superiority or precedence in terms of knowledge and, inter alia, helped the colonial state ‘appropriate’, ‘assimilate’ or ‘dismiss’ other epistemologies. (Deepak Kumar, 28)

It was fascinating how these shifted over time, from a much more respectful position of mutual learning in the early days, yet where knowledge was still appropriated and almost never credited. These early days of botany and medicine are most interesting to me, but so much is lost, not valued thus silenced, despite the vast amount of documentation the company produced. I also wanted to know more of men like Richard Blackwall – a surgeon who turned against the East India Company and joined the Mughals in their struggle against it.

I learned a little, but not enough, of Mughal traditions:

gardens designed to introduce new crops and to provide materia medica for local hopsitals had existed for a long time in both Hindu and Muslim traditions and had spread to Europe in the form of the ‘physic gardens’ and ‘acclimatisation gardens’ that emerged in Italy, Portugal, later Holland, and finally England and France and their colonies (60) In Mughal towns of the period, ‘householder gardens’ were common, along with royal gardens and tomb gardens and the leasing of gardens could provide civic revenue (Anna Winterbottom, 44).

The article closest to what I was expecting was Rohan D’Souza’s ‘Mischievous Rivers and Evil Shoals’, detailing the East India Company’s immense and ultimately wasted efforts in attempting to control the mighty delta in Lower Bengal. A textbook in everything that is wrong with this approach to the world and how we live in it:

Despite the delicate nature of the drainage pattern, colonial rule had, during the course of the nineteenth century, inaugurated a number of projects for road, railway and embankment construction in the region. These modes of transport with their emphasis on permanent all-weather structures and mostly built in unrelenting straight lines marked a sharp break from movement in the earlier era, which was predominantly based on circuitous rough paths and ‘crooked’ routes. The colonial transport network in Bengal, in fact, radiated along the East-West axis, while the region’s natural drainage lines, in contrast, dropped from North to South (139).

The river won, but the decades of struggle, and the resources used by engineers is sobering, as is their despair or resignation. Yet the real tragedy is in the human cost of flooding and famine as older, more flexible methods of navigation, cultivation and agriculture working with the changing river are lost or no longer possible. I don’t know that there is enough rage in this book for me.

One consolation was an entire chapter on the rafflesia arnoldii, the largest flower in the world and proof of a true ‘Malaysian encounter’ when sited by a tourist, also known as a corpse flower for its smell of rotting flesh and parasitic nature:

h1dkeUB Rafflesia-arnoldii

 

In 1819 Robert Brown was Secretary of the Linnaean Society, and it was his task to identify the flower, and he faced a conundrum. Should he name the flower for Raffles, who oversaw the expedition and was well known in scientific circles in London, or Arnold, who had been the chief naturalist, and the first white man to see the flower on the expedition? Brown spent the next eighteen months confirming whether or not it was a botanical novelty and contemplating it’s official classification (Barnard, 160).

This encapsulates so much of early botany — carried out for profit, subject to strict hierarchy and structured by racism, still partaking of adventure and a scientific excitement (on Arnold’s part) not fully tainted by the colonial enterprise of which it was part. Arnold would not survive to see the final classification.

My favourite Raffles is still this one, and I can’t help but think of Arnold as Bunny. But that is absolutely doing my favourite dynamic duo a disservice.

Christopher_Strauli_and_Anthony_Valentine

 

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Shipping Containers: Industrial Present, Sustainable Future?

Is it nice to live in them, work in them, learn in them, play in them? Are they part of the answer to both the housing and environmental crisis?

Long and narrow rectangles of steel, containers are a part of my childhood, forming the long trains that snaked across our landscape. 417989_10151168966670974_951735433_n

When I moved to L.A., they became part of my landscape in a new way, though I confess I rarely made the trip to the port:

Courtesy of the Port of Long Beach.
Courtesy of the Port of Long Beach.

This is the MSC Fabiola, the largest container ship — it’s scale is almost lost in this picture, at 1,200 feet long it can carry 12,500 containers, and only a handful of ports have the capacity to handle its size and depth:

Courtesy of the Port of Long Beach.
Courtesy of the Port of Long Beach.

The second series of The Wire exemplifies the size, the feel, the tragedy of automation on the docks. Containers are symbolic of trade, the industrial side of consumption. Now, increasingly they are being used as building blocks for places that form part of our daily lives.

I was surprised to find multiple projects in London, beginning with the Container City Project:

Devised by Urban Space Management Ltd, the Container City™ system re uses shipping containers linked together to provide high strength, prefabricated steel modules that can be combined to create a wide variety of building shapes and can be adapted to suit most planning or end user needs.

This modular technology enables construction time to be reduced by up to half those of traditional building techniques while minimalising on site disruption and remaining significantly more environmentally friendly.

What does significantly more environmentally friendly mean? In looking deeper I found this way to measure the impact of building that takes into account not just the sustainability of heating and cooling it over time, but also the materials involved in its construction, the idea of embodied energy:

There are two forms of embodied energy in buildings:

· Initial embodied energy; and
· Recurring embodied energy

The initial embodied energy in buildings represents the non-renewable energy consumed in the acquisition of raw materials, their processing, manufacturing, transportation to site, and construction. This initial embodied energy has two components:

Direct energy the energy used to transport building products to the site, and then to construct the building; and

Indirect energy the energy used to acquire, process, and manufacture the building materials, including any transportation related to these activities.

The recurring embodied energy in buildings represents the non-renewable energy consumed to maintain, repair, restore, refurbish or replace materials, components or systems during the life of the building.

This reflects all the costs of mining, processing and transporting of building materials, while also the cost of construction and then the ongoing cost of inhabiting and maintaining the building.

Recycling containers in this way is not only far more energy efficient than melting them down and attempting to reclaim the metal, but also far more efficient in terms of construction materials and process. This makes them ideal for building genuinely affordable housing. This is a project from Arkatainer (more pictures here) for a YMCA scheme to provide housing for homeless teens:

© Matthew Parsons, Arkitainer.com
© Matthew Parsons, Arkitainer.com

This is stripped down and simple, but there is a huge list of container architecture projects from around the world here at inhabitat,  here at altdotenergy, and here at designcrave. Some of my favourites (though surely the more ornate they become, the more glass they involve, the more energy they use):

Tony's Farm is the biggest organic farm in Shanghai, Tony's Organic Farm Has a New Shipping Container Visitor Center in Shanghai
Tony’s Organic Farm Has a New Shipping Container Visitor Center in Shanghai

 

Dachi Papuashvili's Cross-Shaped Micro Home
Dachi Papuashvili’s Cross-Shaped Micro Home

 

 

Four Room House, Belgian architects Pieter Peelings and Silvia Mertens of Sculp(IT)
Four Room House, Belgian architects Pieter Peelings and Silvia Mertens of Sculp(IT)

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And finally London’s own Container City:

Container-City

Fascinatingly, Container City was also the title of a 2009 video game (see a walk through here), where the container city was instead a shanty town, a makeshift ghetto built of port detritus, filled with criminals that need to be hunted down and destroyed.

container-city-brinkbrink-videos---giant-bomb-c3a1lfps

It is the same kind of look but on a massive scale, rusted out, grafittied. It provides a vision of a possible future far removed from the brightly painted and hip constructions now decorating London, and being built around the world. Given a widening inequality, I’m not sure which is a more realistic depiction of our future.

I’ll definitely be exploring London’s container building and this concept further…

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Mining & Housing

I never really made the connection between new housing development, mining and the environmental impacts that both have on the earth.

Then the other other day I stumbled across this: ‘Zinc in London Climbs for Second Day Before U.S. Housing Data‘, and it contains this startling information:

Housing starts in the U.S., the second-largest metals consumer, probably climbed 1.2 percent in December from the previous month, according to a Bloomberg survey

New housing, the second largest metals consumer? (What is the first?)

But of course — look at the kind of new luxury housing that is being built (in the face of the enormous unfilled need for social housing, Lambeth’s waiting list of 21,000 people)

A visualisation of the future skyline of the Nine Elms area of the South Bank in west London has been unveiled by the Nine Elms Vauxhall Partnership.
A visualisation of the future skyline of the Nine Elms area of the South Bank in west London has been unveiled by the Nine Elms Vauxhall Partnership.

I didn’t know much about zinc, most commonly found with nickel and lead (another staple of the construction industry), I found more than I ever wanted to know from the Australian government — where zinc mining is big business.

A large part of the world’s zinc is used as protective galvanised coatings for iron and steel. In Australia, this use accounts for well over half of the domestic sales of zinc. The widespread use of zinc as a protective coating is mainly because of its resistance to normal weathering, and the protection given to steel by the preferential corrosion of zinc when the underlying iron or steel is exposed.

The biggest mines are found in Rahasthan India, Alaska and in Australia. I don’t pretend to fully understand the processes, but it is extremely toxic:

The flotation process is then used to separate the zinc and other valuable sulphide minerals from the waste rock particles or tailings to form a concentrate….Electrolysis and smelting are the two processes used to produce zinc metal in Australia. The electrolytic process is … where zinc concentrate from various Australian mines is roasted to eliminate most of the sulphur as sulphur dioxide and make impure zinc oxide. The roasted concentrate is then leached with sulphuric acid to form zinc sulphate solution…The smelting process …. Zinc and lead concentrates from various mines are blended and sintered or partly melted to combine the fine particles into lumps and remove some sulphur as sulphur dioxide. The sintered product is mixed with coke and smelted in a blast furnace to produce zinc vapour (gas), which is condensed by cooling with a spray of molten lead to form impure molten zinc metal (98.3% zinc). To remove the small amount of lead and cadmium impurities the liquid zinc is twice boiled to zinc vapour and recondensed to produce high purity zinc metal (up to 99.95%).

Zinc is mostly mined underground, unlike copper which is also mentioned in the article and widely used in building for wiring and plumbing. It is pulled from great pits like Morenci in my own Arizona, swallower of whole towns, of graveyards:

Morenci Pit

Or Bisbee:

lavender pit

My 1004844_10151917281020974_710944858_nfamily’s fortunes were tied to mining (my dad made the most wonderful maps, and we helped him) — a terrible thing, being mostly a life of poverty and uncertainty. This is what my dad got from his coworkers when finally laid off by Kennecott after refusing to move to Reno. The golden screw.

Mining provides a livelihood for many, a job that is dangerous but also one of pride, and a love of working underground. In my own part of the world, their history has been based on land stolen by force from Native Americans, the low level violence of prospectors and high level violence of powerful owners running towns, decimating organising work (and often killing or exiling union organisers), discriminating against non-whites. It has meant a boom and bust cycle that has built towns, then destroyed them. Similar violence, greed and exploitation has been repeated in mines worldwide. Pit mining unquestionably destroys the environment, creating the vast, desolate, toxic and terribly beautiful landscapes shown in the pictures above.

All this to build homes on the other side of the country, the other side of the world that will mostly sit empty. Towering boxes of steel and glass that are the least sustainable kind of architecture in terms of energy use, maintenance. Towering boxes of steel that are used as investments toxic to communities being displaced, and toxic to the people who still live there amidst a largely uninhabited wasteland.  This is the feeling on Paddington Basin, along much of the Thames both North and South.

In the struggle over mining and environment my dad always said (quoting a bumper sticker prevalent at the time), if it’s not grown it’s mined. We need metals, they are in everything we use. But by god we should mine them as safely as possible, pay the workers well, use minerals and metals responsibly, be working to reduce our use of them more and more, to reuse and recycle, to replace lost jobs through the creation of new jobs in improving our world to make it greener and more sustainable. This is necessary for our survival.

Instead we strip the earth to build monuments to greed, as unsustainable as the mining practices that make them possible.

 

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To Market To Market

It takes some work finding your way to Covent House, New Covent Garden. A bit of adventure in fact, walking down a residential road taking on faith that there is a gate at the other end of it, though you can see nothing until you are there. At the gate. Tucked down just before you hit the dead end. You walk through it and into an industrial world of large buildings and wide asphalt spaces and trucks. Pedestrian wanderers feel out of place, even after hours — I imagined the busy chaos it must be at peak times. But I arrived easily and safely and the talk by the lovely Helen Evans was so interesting, and opened up so many things I want to look into further.

It was immigration — the arrival of the Huguenots and the Dutch — that saw the real beginnings of intensive horticulture along the south bank of the Thames, and a shift from house gardens to growing produce for market. South London for many years was known for produce: the famous Battersea bundles, or asparagus, the growth of ‘simples’ or herbs like lavender on Lavender Hill. Artichokes, saffron, musk melon, even grapes and the now little known medlar tree (apparently for good reason as the fruit can’t be eaten until it is rotting off the tree and even then it was said it’s not very nice. I need to find some) grown as cash crops and easily transported to the old Covent Garden market by boats, which brought ‘night soil’ back to be used as fertiliser on their return journey.

Medlar Tree

I liked the sound of musk melons as well, what are those I asked myself? Turns out it is a general term for a variety of melon, cucumis melo, that includes the canteloupe and honeydew. Not as exciting as I’d hoped, but delicious, even if I’m slightly allergic to them.

This system of growing vegetables on one bank of the river, transporting them by boat to the city on the other side, and bringing back fertiliser underlines the sustainability of past systems of food production that we have left far behind — but should probably consider returning to again where possible. Interesting that climate change has already had enough of an effect that more crops are being grown in the UK for market that never used to be, like figs. Instead the New Covent Garden is part of a worldwide food system that is a little bit crazy. With the huge growth of London, the fruit/vegetable/flower market by the 1960s had long outgrown old Covent Garden, where essentially all produce was being brought, bought up by local produce shops, and redistributed again. The suburbanisation of South London meant that trucks rather than boats became the main vehicle for transportation. I can’t even imagine the chaos on the Strand. So it was moved to this new site, developed for access by large trucks moving produce from large farm to large clearing center to growing supermarket.

This all changed again very shortly after the new site was built (they moved in 1974). Ever larger supermarket chains developed their own increasingly globalised delivery system (talk about unsustainability), and dealt directly with large market farms around the world for their produce, cutting out New Covent Garden almost entirely. So the customer base is now almost entirely smaller consumers of bulk fresh fruit and veg: restaurants, hotels, hospitals, schools. I started to get really jealous when she described the multiple varieties of fruit and veg the market deals with, not tied down to the ‘perfection’ sold by the supermarkets. The stuff grown because it lasts longer on the shelf and looks most like the ideal and always picked too soon. Instead you can buy tastier and messier mangoes, apples of multiple varieties, small and sweet strawberries — oh, delicious delicious! But only in bulk, and only early in the morning.

She had a fabulous chart of food fashion over the decades as well, the shifting trends in consumption, the date that Jazz apples were first introduced, when kiwis became a ‘thing’, when peppers and courgettes were still marginal (known as queer gear in the trade — curious). Apparently there is a move by cauliflower growers to bring it back into everyday cuisine because sales have fallen so steeply (so go buy some cauliflower!). There are now tourist trails through the rhubarb sheds of Yorkshire ( I am so on that). I learned so much, not least from the awesome little notebook we received that has the fruit and veg in season month by month — you can get a chart here. There are so many reason to buy seasonal and locally-grown food, taste and the future of the planet principle among them.

She had alluded to the Nine Elms development and the development of the market itself several times, which made my heart sink because I hate everything about the Nine Elms development and didn’t want to hear about the market getting moved on because the real estate it’s sitting on is too valuable for just fruit and veg. I was relieved to hear that it’s not getting moved on, though it is getting redeveloped. I’m always suspicious of that, but undoubtedly the market needs a thorough updating given the changes in food distribution systems. It seems like they’ve worked out a fairly good deal, financed through selling 20 of their 57 acres (where the flower market is now). I need to look into it more, and the plans and such are all here on their website, but from their perspective it will better cater to their actual clientele, have more capacity to sell direct to the public, and have a better venue for education and their own garden. I still hate that it’s part of this massive influx of cold high rise luxury development, I wonder what will happen to the very nice estate I walked past to get there, I fear that the new ‘public’ the developers at least are preparing for is a very different one than the folks living there now.

cgma1

But these fears are all for future posts. At the least I am glad the market is remaining, is redeveloping. It is an awesome place.

[the image at top comes from the New Covent Garden food blog, which is also awesome]

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Crabgrass Frontier

745452In understanding how on earth American cities developed as they did, there is probably no better place to start than this book. It is immensely well researched, marshaling a wealth of information that I found jaw-dropping at times. This makes it a bit too detailed on occasions, perhaps a bit harder to get through and I am no fan of reading ad nauseum that old garden city ideal or the building of early havens of wealth and beauty. I could have done with less of that, but so many of the tidbits are delightful, from the horse-car and its effects on the weak-willed:

“It is hardly too much to say that the modern horse-car is among the most indispensable conditions of metropolitan growth. In these days of fashionable effeminacy and flabby feebleness, which never walks when it can possibly ride, the horse-car virtually fixes the ultimate limits of suburban growth.” p 42 (Miller – Fares Please)

to the rise of the automobile:

“There is something uncanny about these newfangled vehicles, They are unutterably ugly and never a one of them has been provided with a good or even an endurable name. The French, who are usually orthodox in their etymology, if in nothing else, have evolved ‘automobile,’ which being half Greek and half Latin is so near indecent that we print it with hesitation.” New York Times January 3, 1899

He has a very broad analysis of suburbia’s rise, and his main argument is that:

The spatial arrangement of cities depends less on ideology than on economics, less on national idiosyncrasies than on industrial development, technological achievement, and racial integration.

I think he does a solid job of showing some of the economics (though I could have wished for more analysis of profits and power, and this is no critique of capitalism itself), industrial development and technological achievement.

But the mention of ‘racial integration’ points up where my main critique lies, because it was not integration that pushed anything at all, it was the immense push to segregation. He does a great job of unearthing and presenting the federal government’s awful role in enforcing and promoting segregation through the FHA and HOLC, but it seems to me he fails to fully engage with the issue of racism, or its manifestation among white Americans themselves. Perhaps that is why he is so hopeful looking into the future…

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Permaculture in Urban Farming: An LA Experiment

Once upon a time I was lucky enough to move into a house with a small and completely overgrown garden. So my then-partner and I decided we would reclaim it and try to grow as much of our own food as possible. Just to learn what that would take.

We grew some delicious vegetables — and if you know me that will make you laugh — but I deeply enjoyed them after they were cooked. We also had loquats and kumquats and pomegranates. We had fresh eggs from the chickens we also raised up there in the Forgotten Edge, perched between Echo Park and Chinatown. But what we managed to grow? I’m afraid it was nowhere near enough to sustain us and this is partly why (apart from size, as of course that does matter).

Grocery stores have brutally erased the agricultural seasons for us, so you have to relearn a lot (which also means your diet and your cooking repertoire have to completely change). You can’t plant seeds all at once, rather you have to do it in waves, so as to have a continuous harvest. Preparation of the ground is key: digging deep, breaking up clay (of which we had tons and it sucked but it sure as hell was better than caliche), adding what you can to improve its lightness along with your organic fertilizer which should come as much as possible from your own compost pile.

We aimed for all organic but it was rough, and involved things like wiping down each individual plant to get rid of aphids and other pests. We bought ladybugs, but did not have a garden they seemed to enjoy sticking around in. That required more thought and work and planting. We had to water; to do it efficiently required putting in a drip system or a way to collect rainwater, and treat and reuse gray water, which we investigated but never managed to do. We didn’t have money even for the drip system all at once, so watering regularly was one more thing (though adding mulch reduced that burden). We had to fertilize regularly. We had to tie up our tomatoes and our cucumbers, and insulate our squash from the ground. We had to rotate crops as we constantly planted new ones. Planting certain combinations — like the famous triad of squash, corn, and beans — helps ensure each variety grows better than they would alone and puts them at less risk of pest infestation, so we planned that into our rotations. And every day we had to be out there weeding, watering, tending, planting. Every. Day.

All of it required planning and thought and work and more planning. It was joy and pain all mixed together, even if we didn’t do it all that well and I discovered I’m lazier than I thought. I remember reading something in the middle of this that referred to subsistence farmers as unskilled labour, and I almost threw the book across the room. The ability to survive on what you grow on the land is knowledge passed down from generation to generation. To try and relearn it all through books that are never specific to the land you are working? I just wonder when we will awaken to the tragedy of what we have already lost, and what we continue to lose.

I started reading  Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual by Bill Mollison during this grand attempt, the only textbook I’ve ever loved. I’ll acknowledge that for the present I’m far too busy, and very happily so, to reattempt such a labour intensive project for now. But permaculture as a way of being in the world has stuck with me. In it’s most concrete sense it is an approach to planning and implementing sustainability, creating systems that provide for their own needs and recycle their waste. It has very practical rules to live by. In a quote from Bill Mollison:

“Permaculture turned very rapidly into a system of design so that everything you put in had a multiple purpose and was in the right place to carry out its job. It’s a peculiar thing to say that you put the tree there to give shade; every tree gives shade; so that’s not a unique characteristic of this tree you put there, to give shade, but if it also gives you something like oranges or dates as well, that’s good, and also has an excess of oranges to feed your pig . . . then it’s doing three things. And I always say that everything you place should do at least three things.”

But more philosophically, it is entirely about getting to know your place: finding out where the sunlight spends most of its time in summer and winter, where the cold air collects, where the soil changes and moisture collects. It’s about acknowledging all of your assets, seeing how you — and everything around you — fit together, work together, improve or help each other. You can only live this way by constantly working to see the world around you holistically, deepening how you understand it. You no longer see just a chicken, but what a chicken eats, how it lives, what it produces as the picture above shows. This requires deep reflection on experience, in preparation for acting, building, creating, before reflecting again in a perfect popular education spiral.

what-is-pop-ed-1-13-10.003

Clearly I haven’t even scratched the permaculture surface here; I’ve just read a book or two and talked to some people and tried to implement some principles, so find out for yourself and explore! I’m particularly excited about urban permaculture, so read more here. I’ll leave you with an awesome design I look forward to one day building, as I’ve already mentioned spirals once and I surely love them:

 

herb spiral
It reminds me of this from my own hometown:

and the house I grew up, built of adobe by my parents and called at different times ‘mud house’ and ‘nautilus house’. This stuff runs deep.

 

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