Synthesising human development with nature's economies

Richard Register & Sven Eberlein
Sunday, 25th August 2013

Richard Register explains how we might begin to attune our human needs with nature's limited supply.

SE: How much closer are we today to widespread use of ecocity principles than we were 40 years ago?

RR: The good news is that our intentions are now becoming more closely aligned with ecocity principles. For example, solar energy is finally coming on strong. I was writing about it in the early 1970s, and it made absolute sense because it's such a simple technology. People are beginning to recognize that. While you create some pollution to make solar panels, they have a very low impact on the environment once they're built. That's good. Also, since the financial meltdown and foreclosure crisis in 2008, a lot of people have been moving back toward city centers. Fuel is expensive, it's lonely and scattered out there in the suburbs, and it's just a bad way of living.

SE: So it's more a matter of necessity than following through on great design principles?

RR: Well, it's a really short-sighted necessity if necessity is just based on price. It's as stupid as the theory that the market sets prices and everyone goes for the lowest price. It's what all the economists think and it's true for some people, but it's not true for people who choose to buy green and fair trade goods, or craft materials.

SE: What are you most optimistic about and what are your biggest disappointments?

RR: We're finally catching on to all this stuff, but too often for the wrong reasons. When I originally got started I wanted to build this ideal, absolutely wonderful city where beautiful terraces and native plants attract hummingbirds and butterflies, where you look out over the landscape and there's no smog because there aren't any cars. At night you could see all the stars because there isn't any glare from street lights and smog. But this vision has not materialized.

The current compacting towards the centers and people giving up on the automobile seems more like a reactive thing. Of course, it's a good sign that people do not love cars anymore the way they did in the 1950s and 60s. Another hopeful sign is that fewer Americans between 16 and 35 are driving cars, but it's mostly because the manufacturers aren't making things work well anymore. Instead of "we're going to create the most positive, wonderful world," it's "uh oh, gas is expensive. I can get cheaper rent in the city and save money on my commute to a higher paying job."

In my mind, those aren't the world's best reasons for change. Sure, it's legitimate but it's not ideal. The ideal thing is to want to build a beautiful and effective environment because you want to cultivate humanity's creativity and compassion, and that environment is facilitated by the ecologically healthy city.

There are a few things that you could call silver bullets - solutions that can cover a whole spectrum of things - and the ecological city is one of them. Another one is more equity and impact. If someone has a thousand times as much as another person, it's not good. You see all sorts of pathologies emerging from extreme differences between the wealthy and the poor. So it's things that are based on a multi-faceted integration, like permaculture, that are silver bullets. If you have a whole system and if the pieces all fit and make sense then you can work with them and learn about them and move on towards much more ideal ways of building. But the overall outlook is extremely bleak, because all these little dreams and fantasies, all these ideas I had always collapsed at a certain point. Pretty much one defeat after another, great ideas destroyed by the most cowardly resistance going on in communities. I'm very discouraged about democracy, and even more discouraged about people with too much power, because they use it so badly.

So what do you do? A lot of good ideas are floating around. Two things are huge: one is physical, and smack dab in the middle of that is ecological city design. The other is more mental, psychological, spiritual, and that is to be open-minded enough to actually be thorough about being open-minded. That is actually the description of science: Open-minded thoroughness, or thorough open-mindedness. You have to have an open mind and stick with it, and not be diverted by prejudices or habits, but stick with this discipline that's trying to understand what's going on and come up with the solutions. It's very simple, but almost nobody does it. It's absolutely stunning.

So my prognosis is extraordinarily negative, but one of the interesting things of having lived through the 60s is that surprises happen. Surprises sometimes come along and change everything. So maybe this climate change emergency, maybe this worry about the future of our grandchildren, maybe some of these things will actually make people say, okay, let's be thoroughly open-minded, find out what's really going on, and actually solve this thing!

I've always been waiting for that. I couldn't quite articulate it until just a few days ago. I was thinking "thorough open-mindedness," what's that? Hey, that's the basis of how we solve this thing. And if you aren't relentlessly thorough about being open-minded and let yourself be diverted by prejudices, bad habits, or money, you can't get there. But there are surprises. And although I think the signs are very bad right now, politically and such, there are little teeny surprises that do happen. And I'm counting on those, or we're not going to make it.

SE: You just finished writing another book. What's it about? What have been your most recent ideas and revelations about transforming cities, and where do you see the ecocity movement going as a whole?

The book is called World Rescue - An Economics Built on What We Build. It’s my first foray into the history of economics, and it’s about knowing what to build and then attempting to realize that vision. There are two economies: One is nature's economy, which no one pays attention to, except ecology-conscious people. We live on a limited planet, we have a biological base, almost all the energy comes from the sun, chlorophyl, and plants, including fossil fuels, it just got stored. We have so much smart technology, so let's get smart and look at it that way.

The other is human economics, a real economics that everybody understands, although it’s really screwed up. The market does in fact do things that capitalists say it does. It sets prices pretty well. But if you don't have regulations it suddenly gets skewed with this positive feedback loop where rich people want to get richer and they focus all their money on hiring lawyers and tax attorneys that divert their money to the Cayman Islands. So they have all these strategies to magnify their wealth, and it becomes a positive feedback loop that destroys the market. It’s okay to take care of yourself, a reasonable profit is a very good thing. But you need regulations, the market needs brakes.

The analogy in my book is that if you're driving in a car, mostly it's about going forward, but once in a while you have to back up. And you have to stop in order to avoid an accident. So the motor force is capitalism, but the regulatory force is the brakes. You have to have both of these. Another way of looking at it is if you're on an airplane they ask you to put the oxygen mask on yourself before you help someone else. It's a sequence, but you help someone else. We're in it together, you know.

More information:

Permaculture and natural disasters – Can we fine tune our cities to be more resistant to large-scale disaster?

Interested in becoming a city planning permaculturist? Have a look at our permaculture course listings to begin your journey.

Sebastian attempts to see if we can: Make our cities sustainable with permaculture

Is the Ecocity the only way to effectively manage massive populations?

Read Richard's Ecocity vision in Ecocities: Rebuilding Cities in Balance with Nature.

Richard emphasises the importance of personal creativity for urban design in Ecocities: using creativity to express our future urban needs

See how Michael Guerra applied permaculture principles to interior space design. Watch the Compact Living - how to design small interior space video

Emily explores: Vertically raised beds for urban green spaces

How to minimize and downsize: 10 steps to reducing personal comsumption