Tag: Audrey Mayer

What is a neighborhood without neighbors?

A recent article in The Atlantic (online, anyway) highlights a new LEED-Platinum certified neighborhood…. yes, the entire neighborhood…. in Victoria, British Columbia. Dockside Green is a 15-acre brownfield redevelopment just across the river from downtown, powered by an onsite biomass gasification plant and treating its wastewater through a constructed waterway. The pictures certainly make it look like the coolest place to live EVER:

However Kaid Benfield (the author) said it didn’t yet feel like a “neighborhood”, perhaps due to its unfinished and half-empty status. He cites both the lack of “critical mass” and the disconnectedness to surrounding neighborhoods as reasons for the feelings of isolation, and I have no doubt that these are the main contributors. In fact, I would argue that the lack of critical mass is far more to blame than the “work in progress” status of the development. And of course, it isn’t just a matter of not having enough humans occupying the space, but enough people who are committed to the goals of the project. Bad neighbors do not make a neighborhood any more sustainable (or desirable) than no neighbors.

Humans are intensely social creatures; if we are unable (or unwilling) to socialize face-of-face, we find new and clever ways to communicate anyway, from smoke signals to virtual worlds. Regardless of how amazing and lovely our dwellings are, without neighbors willing to be neighborly we simply don’t have a neighborhood. It may be that it will take another decade or so before there are enough people of like minds who will create a community in the Dockside Green neighborhood; it seems to have taken that long in other ecovillages such as Prairie Crossing in Grayslake, IL (begun in the mid-1980’s) or the EcoVillage in Ithaca, NY (begun in the mid-1990’s). However, both of these communities have very explicit expectations for social responsibility of all of its residents, going far beyond the restrictions common to homeowner associations, and both of these communities are quite small relative to the Dockside Green effort: 400 homes in Prairie Crossing and 90 homes (60 completed) in the Ithaca EcoVillage, in contrast to the 2500 residents in 26 buildings expected when Dockside Green is completed. It will be interesting to see if this many residents can coalesce into a sustainable neighborhood!


Managed collapse

Contributed by: Audrey Mayer

Ernest Callenbach has an interesting new article in the Solutions journal, entitled “Sustainable Shrinkage: Envisioning a smaller, stronger economy“. He discusses the ways in which we can modify our existing systems to fit within natual resource limits and avoid collapse. These solutions rely heavily on new policies (to encourage different behaviors) and technologies, with considerable assumptions about population growth and reorganization at the local scale. It’s a good (if a bit superficial) read, with many good ideas that will not work at the scale he is envisioning, in my humble opinion.

A substantial part of my research program uses statistical theory to develop indicators for when complex systems (especially human-environment or “socioecological” systems) are about to collapse. In particular, my colleagues and I have tried to apply a statistic called Fisher Information, which is a measure of the predictability of a system over time; the more predictable the system, the higher Fisher Information is. Complex systems tend to have many negative (stabilizing) feedbacks that keep the system’s behavior relatively stable and predictable. As these stabilizing feedbacks deteriorate, the system’s behavior becomes more erratic and hence more difficult to predict. At the peak (or valley?) of collapse, that system could go in one of many typically unpredictable directions. As that system begins to reorganize, new stabilizing feedbacks develop and settle the system into a new operating state, becoming more predictable again. In our work, we have seen a drop in Fisher Information just prior to system collapse, and then Fisher Information increases as these systems reorganize.

The question Callenbach poses is this: can we somehow guide our systems through this collapse and reorganization process with a minimal loss of order? He is not the only one to ask this question. There is a growing literature* which provides ample evidence that large human-environment systems (such as nations or empires) can and do undergo collapse and reorganization regularly…. the current events in the Middle East illustrate this quite well. Typically the reorganization is slow, disorderly, and unpredictable.

My short, pessimistic answer to Callenbach’s question is no: we cannot manage our large, socioecological systems through a collapse and reorganization without substantial disorder. We cannot predict how any new, large system will function, nor when it will function with any predictability. I argue that the self-organizing dynamics at the scale of, say, the United States federal government, are far too large and powerful, and we understand them too poorly, to trust that federal policies and large technological solutions will help us glide to a smarter, more sustainable future. Instead, I think these changes must occur at smaller, more manageable scales: the individual, the family, the local community. At these scales, we can understand and influence the dynamics and feedbacks, and reorganize into functional units. This is not to say that all of Callenbach’s solutions are wishful thinking: creating more durable goods and stronger social ties (and reducing the consumption of cheap products made far away with cheap labor) are solutions that have been advanced from many corners. These are solutions that are more tenable at the small scale…. they will have to propogate up to the larger systems.

*These include books such as Joseph Tainter’s Collapse of Complex Societies“, Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed“, Dmitry Orlov’s humorous “Reinventing collapse: The Soviet example and American prospects“, Chris Martenson’s The Crash Course: The unsustainable future of our economy, energy and environment,” among many others.