Ecocity Economics 101

Ecocity Economics 101

Richard Register

Some of you regular readers of our Ecocity Builders Newsletter might be interested in the way my mind works, which is largely through visual representation, so this article is one version of that. This will be something of an introduction to my book also, World Rescue – an Economics Built on What We Build, which is coming out this very month, available via Amazon. (Don’t have a mainstream publisher yet but expect to get there later.)
I’ll also look at Naomi Klein’s partial conversion and transformation (she says she’s a convert herself) in her recent book This Changes Everything. She says she used to be a climate change denier, but not any more. She even likes some things the World Bank has done and sees a little positive in some capitalism.
Then I’ll lay out some of my ideas around something I call “exaggerated gamesmanship,” one of my favorite constructs from my new book, along with the concept I call “dimensional pairs,” another of my new ideas. I wrote about that one last spring in these electronic pages, spring boarding from my talk at a conference in Baku, Azerbaijan called “New Paradigms in Human Development.”
Then I’ll relate all that to the way I think about designing cities. I hope you will enjoy it! Welcome to more visual – graphic if you will – type of thinking.





1.a, 1.b Endosymbiosis

People love games and there is opposition everywhere in life as we “struggle to survive.” In the mid 1800s Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace emphasized competition in the flow of evolution. Along came a few ecologists in the early 1900s suggesting there might be something later called endosymbiosis, the phenomenon of single celled bacteria (prokaryotic cells) invading other single celled bacteria, getting inside (endo-) and instead of eating the intended food source or being eaten like amoebas do their food critters, ended up coexisting, the one internal to the other. Then the two adjusted to each other over millions of years and ended up benefiting the whole new relationship, becoming together a new kind of cell. Living together beneficially is called symbiosis and thus the term became “endosymbiosis.”
Also thus, the total became the first truly modern complex cell (eukaryotic cell) that now make up all those plants and all us animals. The invading (or enveloped cells, depending on your point of view), then internal to the engulfing cells, became what is called organelles within the becoming more complex larger cells. In plants one of the invaders was blue-green algae, aka cyanobacteria, which became the chloroplasts (that type of organelle) within the cells of the plants that proceeded to convert minerals, waters and gasses with the power of sunshine into sugars, starches and cellulose. Very important! That’s where, as animals, our energy and much of our food comes from. In animal cells the early invading pests (guests?) that came to stay became the energy-burning, movement-specializing mitochondria (that type of organelle) in the larger, now called, animal cell. Look in the mirror: all you see is that kind of cell, but millions of them.
My hero Lynn Margulis researched and greatly advanced the idea and insistently supported it until symbiosis was embraced by practically all biologists today. Thus her work came to forcefully introduce the element of cooperation – in the extreme – into the understanding of evolution. In a sense Darwin and Wallace represented competition while she represented cooperation and together we get the crucial two seemingly opposed dimensions of complex life on our planet. Voila! Evolution finally explained in its two major dynamic components.


2. Exaggerated gamesmanship

The idea of exaggerated gamesmanship sees in evolution and ecology these balanced two dimensions as basically the game of life, competition and cooperation. They also roughly represent the relationship of capitalism and competition in most economic schemes with socialism. But in relation to the various games we humans play, other filigrees spin out getting quite exaggerated, some causing a good deal of trouble, horror even. There are card games, board games, sports games, influence games and racist, religious and nationalist games of competition morphing into attempts at conversion, dominance and exploitation which has historically often magnified into war. The game of capitalism vs. socialism is, in human economics, one such game that can get enormously magnified. Let me define those as tending to opposite poles, the more extreme of which on “the right” is generally called fascism where a repressive clique, tending to violence, employing slave labor in times of war and through a small number of individuals own most of the means of production, and, on the “left,” the extreme is called communism, under which a small number of individuals control most of the means of production – including the people they claim to be representing. I’ll talk about the milder form of it all with capitalism vs. socialism, one of those games that can get out of control.
Unfortunately Naomi Klein, though she has caught on to the importance of dealing with climate change and is now fully aware of it’s planet-wide life expunging “potential” already pretty “kinetic,” has, in her own self-created tradition (her previous book was the extraordinarily powerful The Shock Doctrine – The Rise of Disaster Capitalism), has subtitled her present book Capitalism vs. The Climate. She neglects the fact that socialism in many of its expressions and manifestations has been just as anthropocentric and just as eager as capitalism to exploit the hell out of nature, claiming to be doing it for all The People rather than only for the elite rich, and just as enthusiastic in exploitation of nature and waging repression and war. I like the way John Kenneth Galbraith put it in one of the many entertaining quotes I got from him, included in my new book: “Under capitalism, man exploits man. Under socialism, it’s just the opposite.”
When I was in Bolivia three months ago Evo Morales was in New York and said at the United Nations it is time to put an end to capitalism. I agree with Mr. Morales, but add that it is also time to put an end to socialism too, realizing that they are polarities of the same thing, which I’d call capital economics, not capitalism and not socialism. We need to tone down the heated exaggerations that dramatize and gain attention while raising levels of fear and anger and stop fighting one another as we need to both stop fighting nature.
We need the synthesis, just as the simple cells, pre-eukaryotic, could and did become one new kind of whole. True, they divided again into two “camps” you might say, plants and animals, and in the rather brutal way of nature’s evolution, the animals were busy ripping up, grinding down, chewing up and swallowing the plants, and even some of each other. But not without delivering services like pollination and spreading and fertilizing seeds for the plants. Enormous biodiversity and many think much fascination and beauty came from this New Deal. I mean would you really like to live in an ever so simple and boring prokaryotic world?
Capitalism and socialism are the economics version of my “dimensional pairs.” Why not just recognize that both have positive things to offer and both are prone to particular types of problems? Why not take the best from both and try to tone down the exaggerations and excesses that damage people and nature both? Why not see them both as dimensions of the other making up our capital system, meaning an economic system that uses capital as a medium of exchange.
As in my graphic above, it is traditional to see capitalism championing the idea that the individual is the pinnacle of evolution’s good works. The capitalists have the inconvenient truth about them, for the socialists, that they in fact often produce things in their sometimes harsh ways of exploitation, that are useful or hotly desired things that “the people” buy up and not only benefit from and enjoy but many cases even become virtually addicted to, like video games. The railroad barons produced what? Railroads! I love taking the train. The car companies built what? Millions of cars. Why? Not because they love building stuff but because people wanted or were advertised into wanting them – and then bought them. Whose fault is it that cars have wrecked the landscape, turned healthy pedestrian environments into the sprawl that delivers us the climate change Naomi Klein is now railing against? Cars addicted us to easy, cheap, impulsive transportation, the thrill of speed, the ego trips that snare lovers through splashy courtship display of the sort I took part in when I was in my teens and early twenties, in a shiny, flashy, escape-your-parent’s-prying-eyes automobiles. They worked!
But that also means capitalists remain extremely vulnerable to the people’s buying habits – so why don’t the people stop buying what the corporations try to make indispensible? We can all reshape our habits with a little – or lot – of effort, even reshape our cities and skip the cars, given a couple decades. Television is not indispensible, for example. I’ve never owned one in my whole life (for more than 20 minutes and then sold it at a profit) and seldom look at one. It is obviously not necessary. I’m not dead yet!
The socialists have a powerful point that the rising inequality in material terms is causing injustices and immense damage socially which come largely from the excesses of those who appear to command the big companies. Everyone acknowledges the necessity to amass enormous amounts of capital for large social projects, something the capitalists literally monopolized in the late 1800s in the US, but something the extreme socialists in the USSR monopolized – capital – even more massively with similar damage to nature and most would agree truly disastrous damage to the millions of people sent off to Siberia or outright “liquidated.”
So the polarities as in the graphic could amount to a game of back and forth with points scored in the game, opportunities to impress your friends and win your spouse while delivering something to both society and yourself, even deliver to nature, as when people create wilderness areas and protect endangered species.
But if it gets extreme…


3. Dimensional pairs

A dimensional pair is a pair of somethings, without the other, nothing. A cosmic dimensional pair would be, for example space and time. Hard to imagine one of those without the other. Another such pair is energy and matter. Can’t imagine either of those separate from the other. In fact, modern physics talks about space/time warping and energy and matter are in some ultimate way the same whole, as expressed by Einstein in his famous formula E=mc2. The ancients of China and Korea used to express the seeming contradictions of opposites that nonetheless harmonize in the yin-yang symbol, which is even on the Korean national flag. But when you start seeing the “opposites” as dimensions that can’t exist unless paired, it begins to make the hard if nicely gracefully curved line become fuzzy. What’s the best graphic representation among the four above to represent in unity of dimensions? I certainly don’t know but it is an interesting question to think about. (A student in one of my classes said the one on the lower right looked like the abstracted face of the God of the cosmos, something of an ultimate physics/math space/time reality staring down at him.)
Another dimensional pair: the unique and the universal. It gets down to “the exclusionary principle” that two things can’t occupy the same space at the same time (though some versions of math-dominated physics suggest this might not be true after all). In more human terms, we know we are all the same in many ways, our bodies with extremely closely related DNA and basic arrangement of our sub systems, in similar bodies, called organs. And yet each of us is completely unique in many details of anatomy, experience, personality, tastes and so on all at the same time.
The capitalism/socialism pair has many of the attributes of a dimensional pair, which is a reason I think of them as tendencies within a single system largely animated by capital based exchange, capital economics not capitalist.


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

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


5. Plants catch the sun

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


6. Photosynthesis makes sugars, starches, cellulose…

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


7. Humans dominate mammals – massively!

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


8. Human economy embedded in Nature’s

The above graphic represents the raw material for nature’s economics: minerals, water, air and solar energy, and once it all gets started, the biology itself that lives partially on itself.
Human economy is as Thomas Berry says, “derivative” of nature’s, nested in, based on, embedded in – different was of saying we are completely dependent. Some scientists say maybe not – maybe we could make factories to grind up minerals and mix in water and come up with artificial means to do what chlorophyll already does so nicely for us already. Mineral vegetables to eat and machine made meat? I’ll just leave all that hanging, wondering what it might taste like and how to manufacture that, and why to manufacture that?
What is especially interesting to me in this graphic is that in the human economy we have the early layer, you might say, that I discuss at length in my new book, World Rescue, after reading the work of Marcel Mauss and Karl Polanyi. The idea is that early economics were permeated with generosity – giving to the child, giving to one another, and before “numeracy,” the knowledge of numbers and of the usefulness of the value of quantification at any level of complexity, and before there was capital, that is money, people kept relatively vague material values for things and services in their heads. They gained status in giving and incurred obligations in receiving, round and round in cycles of tradition in the nature of community life.
Money was invented first as agreements to be remembered – verbal money I call it. Then it took physical form carrying three qualities: 1.) it served as something representing something else, not being the thing itself, being thereby a “medium of exchange, plus 2.) a holder of value over time, plus 3.) a means of quantifying.
Another factor at play: the artifact list. My first job ever, when I was 16, was with an archeology expedition digging up Indian ruins on the New Mexico and Colorado border. The entire artifact list of that culture would probably have fit on one sheet of paper, both sides, double columns, Times New Roman, 12 point.
As the artifact list of a culture gets longer and longer there emerges the actual need to invent something with those three above qualities. Fruits and fish couldn’t be used because they don’t last very long. Pots or bags of dry grains in desert regions served in some societies. Then things of utility that were pretty universally useful – if you had a lot of whatever they were you could maybe trade them. For example one of the first forms of money in China was tools, such as knives but especially shovels. Marx would have liked that: the labor basis of value. But people decided to make smaller, lighter shovels to work for exchange more than for actual work, easier to move around. Shovels became shovel representations that shrank and shrank as people kept the idea in mind that these particular “shovels” were eventually useless for anything but exchange. And eventually they decided small flat pieces of metal would work better: coins. When it was realized all you really needed was agreement as to value and had places to store your money, that is capital, the Chinese invented paper money. And thus began not the age of capitalism but simply the age of capital economics that could tend toward either what we’d think of today as more capitalist or more socialist. Have fun playing your games but don’t exaggerate to the point of damage.


9. And with in capital economics…

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


#10 is the same as #2
But it is worth saying the obvious at this point, which is often ignored in capitalist vs. socialist and “just the opposite” which is that an ostensibly strongly socialist country even claiming to be communist, China, is stuffed with Lynn Margulis’ organelles of capitalism, a new synthesis of an interesting sort. Of course I’d think so – I make a fair share of my money there in speaking fees. Am I a capitalist or socialist? Then in something of the reverse but also what looks a lot like a eukaryotic combination we have strong socialist tendencies in the largely capitalist democracies of northern Europe.


My version of ecocity design and planning

I’ll wind up with a graphic as to how I think through designing and planning an ecocity, on the run you might say, that is, incorporating feedback as initiatives face reality and corrections are incorporated into the future.
First off we have the gifts of our environment, solar energy arriving on Earth in the fullness of evolutionary time and in the moment to moment flow of ecology. In that we need to learn the basic patterns from nature. Those are represented in the upper left in the bubble radiating sunshine and labeled “evolution and anatomy analogy with a separating line. Evolution tells us universe is changing in a pattern of emerging material stuff and types of energy that come from… where? The physicists have so far basically given up and just call it “emergence” all of it from the original “Big Bang” but in evolving new forms and types that can’t be predicted from previous condition. Big mystery as to where from, the first “Big Bang,” or the seemingly ever-happening appearance (emergence) of new stuff and energy in new phenomena.
The anatomy analogy is simply a way of saying cities, towns and villages are like complex living organisms and can gain a great deal in design and operation by noticing that, that is, the anatomy of both should be similar in basic principle, to whit: three-dimensional, not flat like a tortilla or suburbia. They should also both be highly efficient running on as little material and energy as possible for their functioning – and land area as well: compact.
The other most basic thing to think about is, once you’ve noticed the above conditions and principles, is a vague kind of intuition about where your design is headed. That we see where most of the various arrows seem to be tending toward the upper right of the graphic. There are two bubbles up there, one around the word “ecocity” and one around the word “ecocity fractal.” The ecocity fractal could be something like an in-city village. Building one of those things should create something very pleasant to live in if it was surrounded for the most part by the open space of farming and/or natural landscape. The ecocity fractal would have the essential components and functions of a larger ecologically tuned community – housing, jobs, commerce, food production and consumption, education and so on – and all of that optimally arranged in relation to the whole. This image, or vision, is something like a premonition based on some good knowledge already assembled.
Now in the lower left quadrant of the graphic we see a circle of nine bubbles, the upper four I say are “given” meaning given by nature, and the lower five are “built” meaning created by us humans. They all have to do with the building and maintenance of our eventual ecocity or ecocity fractal. The ones given, above the bright yellow and orange dashed line are biodiversity, sun, rain and minerals. The ones we create are food gardens, residence space to live in, workplace trading various made things about, and the actually making of products, including the architecture itself that houses and arranges the eventual ecocity or ecocity fractal that is for the moment a set of ideas in our heads. All the little red dotted lines are simply saying that all these components relate to all the others. I point out in the line of red letters that the architecture, as said, holds it all together eventually, physically. Also the vision of the architecture in maps, plans and drawing, photoshops – whatever – holds the whole process of planning and execution together conceptually and in communication between all participants in the process.
Now along the way we have little chokepoints in our lines of progress toward our goal, or milestones, which are often special meetings of planner, city council meeting and the policy such points of discussion and decision for next steps. These I represent with little red and blue dots. I mention in one of these, but which exist throughout the whole process, maps and zoning tools like transfer of development right, that is, means to shift the arrangements of architecture, open space and function of those. As we move along toward our ecocity and/or ecocity fractal goal/goals, I’ve indicated the correcting influence of environmental realities in blue lettering and more small dashed lines and arrows converging on our process.
Then let’s say we finally literally build something based on our original but transformed goal/goals. At that point we start learning all over again for future cities – and change the course of history and evolution both at the same time.

And Finally…

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