Suburbia Loving Americans Slow in Seeing the Forest for the Trees with Regards to Sustainability

Idling_Infographic_01There is just something alluring to me about this graphic which exposes the truth about idling a vehicle in a very detailed graphic form. It shows all the fuel and energy we could save, if we just exercised a little common sense about how we use or vehicles.

Related to this was my recollection of surprise, while in Boston last year and observing and learning how many law enforcement and emergency care and response vehicles are constantly left with their engines running. The thinking is that they need to be left idling so that the emergency personnel will have the quickest possible response times. Knowing this now, it would not surprise me that law enforcement makes up a disproportionate amount of motor vehicle emissions associated with idling a vehicle. Whether this makes any real sense or not, obviously people continue to resist efforts like the organization Sustainable America that made the graphic below as part of its The Truth About Idling A Vehicle Campaign.

Yet maybe its also the sustainability advocates that needs to change and rethink some of their approaches? I give the example of the recent efforts by Boulder county administrators to implement a “sustainability tax“. While to us sustainability advocates, a tax devoted to discouraging waste and encouraging more sustainable development and practices seems like a no brainer, for most in the mainstream it seems like another unnecessary burden funding more government bureaucracy, as essential services are faltering. Even in a “sustainable eco-green capital” like Boulder, it seems we can’t really get our act together and offer a real model of what a medium sized sustainable city might begin to look like. This is a key point that sustainability advocates have a lot of trouble understanding that there is no rational reason for understanding much of how our economy and society operates – it just works. Most folks don’t really spend much time thinking about the larger implications of what they do, much less the larger economy. The resistance to serious sustainability efforts has little to do with the idea that turning our vehicles off when we are not using them, is really not a very difficult thing. The challenge comes from rethinking our habitual existence and this exposes the real challenge of serious sustainability efforts. To get people to fundamentally rethink how they live their lives and their sense of value in terms of how they use their time and get things done, means more work and effort and so many folks in this society are so stressed out and overworked just doing what they do to survive and compete.

We saw this even at Arcosanti, where many visitors expressed their confusion and dismay to me over the years about the fact that the project had not been able to organize itself as a more compelling model of sustainable urban living. Arcosanti is just reflecting a larger social pattern of the sustainability community in terms of its inability to respond to the larger scale patterns of unsustainability by creating holistic, working, living and breathing models of eco-conscious, community oriented living. A larger counterpoint though to well intended efforts such as the one on the right is that they are “incrementalist” and also piece-meal in that they don’t address the issue of waste in the economy in a comprehensive and fundamental way. Soleri went so far as to say that they really constituted little more than a “better kind of wrongness.” This was his way of saying that they were not really substantive or meaningful in creating the kind of “Reformulation” he said was vital to our civilization’s survival.

From a Solerian perspective, the issue of “Muda” (which was popularized in Anglo-American culture in the green business reform book Natural Capitalism) is not about wasting less but rather fundamentally redesigning the whole production or consumption system from the ground up to synergistically minimize waste and to efficiently and frugally use natural and human resources/capital. Thus a campaign about idling a vehicle can risk diluting the more powerful and compelling need for what Soleri termed a “Reformulation” of our economy and society towards something more ecologically and socially sustainable over the long term. Because it can be overwhelming, considering all the initiatives and campaigns to reduce waste and bad habits, many of which have been operating with limited success in terms of produce systemic change in overall metrics of consumption, Add to this, the notion that possibly what has been lagging in this process is a more holistic manifestation of social change (consider that this might be one mandatory requirement for building a sustainable society).

Some have termed the missing link in the sustainability movement as being the development of Collective Intelligence to optimize the effectiveness of social networks to achieve the goals needed to create a sustainable society. We are still working in our linear segmented silo based realities. This is where I want to separate the dogmatism of Soleri in terms of his mega dense urban city planning vision called Arcology with the larger Arcology idea of a fundamental change in the way the society operates and consumes resources. Through still being debated a growing body of research does seem to support the idea that large densely packed cities like Manhattan (and secondary to that the subsets of NYC that radiate out from that uber-dense core and even go into the suburban fringes of the megalopolis) are on many levels more sustainable than say suburban or rural regions which in the USA are particularly dependent on the logistics of Car Culture. However this does not take into account the social and political issues that come up with dense urban development. In many the regulatory framework is restrictive and cumbersome for innovators, especially when it comes to groundbreaking sustainable projects. Also the spatial issues and shifts are dramatic in that there space is much more of a constraining factor than in rural and suburban regions.

Finally there is an issue of logistics in terms of the energy to bring resources into the city from the rural areas and the reality that they city is dependent on these rural regions for its life. What if these lines of supply were at some point depleted or broken? I suggest this quote from an article titled “The Green Case for Cities” by Witold Rybczynski in The Atlantic Magazine does address some of the issues mentioned above in relation to offering a more comprehensive approach to sustainability that includes social, economic and environmental considerations (the Triple Bottom Line of Sustainability) and a more “moderate” level of density than what Soleri proposes in his Arcologies:

A Thoreau-like existence in the great outdoors isn’t green. Density is green. Does this mean that we all have to live in Manhattan? Not necessarily. Cities such as Stockholm and Copenhagen are dense without being vertical. And closer to home is Montreal, where the predominant housing form is a three- or four-story walk-up. Walk-ups, which don’t require elevators, can create a sufficient density—about 50 people per acre—to support public transit, walkability, and other urban amenities. Increasing an area’s density requires changing zoning to allow smaller lots and compact buildings such as walk-ups and townhouses.

Soleri, regardless of how realistic his super dense Arcology model is or was, was correct in seeing that the costs of low density development has an inherent inefficiency to them and that the future of humanity is tied to our ability to reverse prevailing low density development patterns that lead to this built environment blight that we call “Suburban Sprawl.” The cost of building roads for example to service low density car culture is actually higher than in supplying and sustaining high density urban based societies. So while we focus on issue like not idling our cars, buying organic food, bolting solar panels onto our roofs and saving water by not brushing our teeth, its likely that if the underlying dynamics of how the built environment of modern American society don’t change, that little real progress will be made with regards to sustainability.


Rugged Individualism & Arcosanti

We’ve had a stream of documentaries coming out or being worked on about Soleri and they probably all help to give different and possibly valuable insights about Soleri and his lifework.

Most recently an Italian-American magazine called The American in Italia presented the story of Lisa Scafuro who has been devoting much of her life to another video about Soleri titled The Vision of Paolo Soleri: the Prophet in the Desert.

I’m not sure how this movie portrayed Soleri or Arcosanti but I suspect its another Soleri-centric documentary. I’m still hankering for a true to life documentary and not a PR piece that just shows us the best of Soleri – as many of the documentaries I’ve seen seem to gravitate towards. I’d also like to see more efforts at documenting the many incredible stories of the people that lived at and made Arcosanti Arizona. This leads me to consider some of the deeper issues that may have prevented Arcosanti from being a place where many great minds could have come together to create Arcosanti Critical Mass much sooner than now seems possible.

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Rethinking Paolo Soleri’s Theory of Arcology

My view is that we are at an interesting intersecting of events and ideas as well as experiences. Possibly this is the real meaning of  the 2012 prophesy? And I know all the skeptics and how they say the predictions are not accurate. I am not an expert on all of this, but what I know is that we have a lot of people who in history and throughout it seemed to attach a lot of significance to these days in which we now find ourselves together in. I feel this also intuitively and I know many others in this world share my feelings.

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Post from Hotel Karolinenof in Vienna

IMG_3185It has been great to get a chance to experience Europe once again. The last time I was in Europe was with my political science advisor in college (1995) as part of his month long class trip to Europe (he was from Switzerland). During that experience I travelled to the UK, France, Belgium, Amsterdam,  Germany and Switerland as part of a focus on the EU which had just expanded into the EuroZone.

The trip was not just for fun (as is the case for this one), I was expected to write a report/research paper to get college credit. What I realized from the process was that essentially the dichomy between Europe focusing on the quality of the human experience and the USA moving towards a desire to express success and meaning through the consumption of a high quantity of things. In particular I focused on the difference in transportation systems noting that Europe had a sophisticated, well connected mass and intercity transit system and the USA did not. I considered that this difference may be a major factor in evaluating the ecological, social and economic sustainability of the two cultures/societies.

This time I get to explore some of what I missed the first time including my time here in Vienna at the Hotel Karolinenof. The hotel was first built in 1911 and has been run by the same family up to now. Franz Nahrada is now the person in charge. Franz has been an advocate of more sustainable grassroots development for many years now. He and I converged by way of our mutual interest in the work of Paolo Soleri and Arcosanti/Arcology.

Earlier this week I had a chance to present at Linux Woche (Week) in Vienna (May 2-4) about the emergence of Open Source Hardware (OSH) and the results I gathered from a conference I had attended earlier in that week – The Open Source Hardware Documentation Jam in New York (April 26-28).

I attended this event at the request of Franz who wanted to consider how the information and proceedings at the event in New York might be relevant to share with folks who have a similar mindset and vision in Europe. As a result of my attendance I put together a presentation for the Linux Woche event that put forward some of my perspectives about OSH and its potential larger social implications. After the presentation I was interviewed by Anna Masoner who was a reporter from Austrian Public Radio.

Today is the Global Villages meeting. Franz is considering how a shift can be made in his life so that he can support the development of a Global Villages movement that leads to local village empowerment as an alternative to corporate globalization. His vision is expressed here at the Globally Integrated Village Environment (GIVE) website.

Revisiting & Rethinking Soleri’s Map of Despair

One of the lingering thoughts from my reading of Soleri’s Magnum Opus City in the Image of Man was the Map of Despair. Its an idea put forward by environmentalists who lament the imposition of a grid like structure over natural systems in so called developed areas. Actually what I interpret Soleri as referring to is the aesthetic and sensory impact of over-development.

The idea of over-development relates to the current situation of humanity on many levels and layers of reality perception. For example it can range from bloated military and health care costs to elevated levels of obesity in affluent nations. It also can be evident in the way everything has been mapped out and fenced off with the modern grid.

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The High Price of Car Culture

In the summer of 2012 we were staying on the roof because it was hot inside. Somebody had this weird eye allergy and it looked worrisome. So I took him to the local hospital. He ended up being fine but on the way to the hospital I was speeding because I was still worried about his condition and it was late in the night and I was tired. Unfortunately I got flashed by one of those Big Brotherish, Robot Speeding Ticket machines.

A former boss once had a bumper sticker on her car: REALITY IS WHEN IT HAPPENS TO YOU. You have to think about that for moment and consider what it really means. Sort of like I think when the Chinese might have said that old Chinese Proverb to one another: “May you live in interesting times.”

We don’t have to use our imagination much to consider the sudden and shocking way that our lives can be devastated and even destroyed by a single simple mistake in judgement when driving. To imagine the shattering glass, metal, plastic and human bodies too. Suddenly two separate autonomous bodies merge as one in a violent crash of high speed metal and plastic crashing, smashing and literally exploding into steaming heaping hulk of destruction. In the really bad accidents – that’s when the crying and screaming starts if people are still alive or conscious – that is. At least with a gun, the violence is much cleaner and clear cut.

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Exploring what “Being Less Bad” Means in relation to the Sustainability Movement

Paolo Soleri in my view is better at taking ideas and repackaging them into a holistic explanation of reality called Arcology than creating something totally new.  Indeed Arcology is a amalgamation of a diffuse set of ideas including: evolutionary biology, big bang physics, organic architecture and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin‘s Omega Point philosophy.

A case in point is the fact that in researching this post, I just realized that people had been discussing this idea of “being less bad” in relation to the “dumbing down” of the sustainability movement, years before Soleri began talking about “Better Kind of Wrongness.” Yet it was Soleri’s take on this concern of “being less bad – by focusing on superficial choices that might be used to give one an undeserved “green stamp of approval” – was what dominated my mind’s eye. It colored how I saw the world and often this is the danger of seeing the world too much in the lens of one way of thinking. Group think is a relatively new word that describe how a very smart group of people can be trapped by the insularity of their thinking, especially if they see it as just one solution or way seeing the world. That is one challenge to places like Arcosanti and those who are attracted to Soleri’s idea of Arcology is that they may become stifled by the projection of one influential visionary’s idea of how the world works.

I’ll be exploring this idea of GroupThink and the implications on Arcosanti and Arcology in future posts. For now lets to take a retro look at the good ole days of School of Thought discussions at Arcosanti and consider this idea of Better Kind of Wrongness and what it means to us in relation to putting forward a better way of living on this world.

An important thing to remember in this process, is that if we can’t figure out how to temper our passions of critical thinking about the power brokers and decision-makers at the top of society who often formulate the world’s ideas often without us, we may become more like them than we might want to admit. For what is most important today is not just to point out the WRONGNESS, but to see the shining lights of the people all over the world trying to create nodes of Convergence around the RIGHTNESS. Focusing not just what is wrong but to cleverly figure out how to change people’s minds by point out what is right,  is the only way we’ll create the kind of change we’re hoping for. Continue reading