The following is an excerpt from the forthcoming novel EcoGuerrillas.
Our society uses a variety of systems to organize itself. Cities, neighborhoods, counties, and towns order us in physical space. Representatives in the local, regional, and national government make decisions and the rules by which we live. Our work is organized into industries: extraction, production, and service (also called the primary, secondary, and tertiary sectors of the economy, respectively). To keep track of resources and labor, we have devised a banking system. Through formal education we learn how to navigate these systems and what role we are to play.
The problem with each of these systems, however, is that they are built on an “empty-world” model (Daly 1996) which assumes infinite resources. Our world is not infinite, and we must dismantle the current system in order to create new ones based on reality. The current system ignores externalized costs, is predicated on selfish principles, functions as an oligarchy disguised as a democracy, and exploits everything with which it come into contact. We cannot simply update and improve the current system because it are built on a faulty foundation. Or, in the words of Theodore Kaczynski (2008, 81):
People tend to assume that because a revolution involves a much greater change than reform does, it is more difficult to bring about than reform is. Actually, under certain circumstances revolution is much easier than reform. The reason is that a revolutionary movement can inspire an intensity of commitment that a reform movement cannot inspire. A reform movement merely offers to solve a particular social problem. A revolutionary movement offers to solve all problems at one stroke and create a whole new world; it provides the kind of ideal for which people will take great risks and make great sacrifices. For this reason it would be much easier to overthrow the whole technological system than to put effective, permanent restraints on the development or application of any one segment of technology[.]
Cities have only existed for about seven thousand years, and they have always been a drain on their surroundings. Until only a few hundred years ago, cities could not maintain their populations through local reproduction. Disease was so prevalent that urban death rates exceeded that of births. It was only because people from the country moved into cities that they grew. Even today, no city is self-sustaining in any sense of the word. Vast amounts of electricity, fossil fuels, food, materials, and wealth must be dumped into the gaping maw of each metropolitan area. These resources are used and discarded, overflowing landfills and clogging waterways with effluent.
That is not to say cities are all bad. Cities use less gasoline, electrical cable, and road surface per capita than one might expect. Cities have higher wages and more patent-holders, inventors, and wealth, than the countryside. Cities are dominated by the manufacturing and service industries, while the acquisition of raw materials takes place in the surrounding region. For all that, cities also have higher crime rates and no better employment numbers, electrical use, or water consumption than the country. The biggest problem to sustaining a large city is transportation. When fossil fuels run out, it will be difficult to move the tons of fresh foods and other products needed to sustain the dense populations.
Cities violate all of our precepts. Cities only accept species deemed to be beneficial or at least benign. Each year, for example, people in Florida’s cities are appalled when an alligator shows up in their back yard, as if the reptile was an intruder. Dogs, cats, songbirds, squirrels, and other cute-and-cuddly animals are welcomed, while rats and insects are eradicated. Cities do not mimic nature. Some animals live in large, dense, city-like communities, such as ants, termites, and bees, but they do not increase past a certain size. Most species of bees, for example, will divide their hive when it reaches about one and a half cubic feet in size. Even ant “supercolonies,” consisting of hundreds of millions of ants, are subdivided into nests of a few thousands ants apiece. Humans, though, insist on making ever-larger and more-populated cities instead of taking the hint from other gregarious species. Large cities are complicated organic constructions, and the ad-hoc nature of their maintenance puts them in a precarious position when resources falter and change. Indeed, research shows that humans have cogitative limits on the number of meaningful relationships they can manage (Dunbar 1992).
Cities are no longer human scaled and they must be reigned in. Cities were once chosen with their natural environments in mind—today we modify the environment to suit our wishes instead. Cities should be limited by a few common-sense rules derived from other species that have learned to live successfully in large communities. First, each city must have a population maximum and the limit should be determined by the city’s catchment area. A catchment area will support its population by providing enough food, water, building materials, and space. Some areas will support greater populations than others. Coasts are ecologically rich and more people can live on the resources available near the coast than in high mountains, for example. We’ll discuss population growth in a coming post, but currently the United States has about seven acres per person. Ecologically diverse and rich areas may support people on as few as three or four acres per person, while other areas might need seven to ten acres per person.
Communities should be defined within geographical areas: a watershed, around a lake, along a river, a valley, etc. For some communities, it makes sense to live together densely, leaving the rest of the catchment area open for careful use. In other areas, people may prefer to spread out evenly across their territory. In all, though, communities should average about a hundred square miles and have less than ten thousand people (>6.4 acres per person). At this scale, one could cross the entire catchment area in less than an hour by bicycle. More importantly, people would know one another again. And, as most of the resources for a community would have to come from their own territory, the residents would have a vested interest in maintaining the ecological health of their surroundings.
Daly, Herman E. 1996. Beyond Growth: The Economics of Sustainable Development. Boston: Beacon Press.
Dunbar, Robin. 1992. “Neocortex size as a constraint on group size in primates.” Journal of Human Evolution 22 (6): 469–93.
Kaczynski, Theodore. 2008. Technological Slavery: The Collected Writings of Theodore J. Kaczynski, a.k.a. “The Unabomber”. Port Townsend, Washington: Feral House.