The Laws of the Jungle, Part 1

Up to this point I have invoked physical and natural laws frequently in levying criticism upon insular planning strategies. These physical and natural laws include ecological principles, laws of thermodynamics, and the operational principles of dynamic dissipative systems.

I have talked a bit about how insular planning subscribes to the fallacious worldview that infinite growth is inevitable, despite the fact that our cities depend upon resources and waste sinks from a finite world. I have criticized it for promoting a “triple bottom line” approach to achieving sustainability which neglects the undeniable fact that operation of social equity and economic growth – two of the bottom lines – are wholly contingent upon the smooth functioning of the third bottom line – environment.

Last week I discussed how ignoring this fact – particularly at a time of intensifying energy and resource scarcity – is folly, and how this flawed perspective undermines any serious efforts toward dealing with the implications of the predicament of energy descent and environment change.

Over the course of its existence, the planning profession has existed within a bubble which made it seem that the social and political interests were the only significant limiting factors toward instituting best planning policies. Vast energy supplies and environmental stability made this bubble of perceived unlimited opportunities possible.

As energy descent and ecological instability increasingly rule the day, we’re going to meet physical and natural laws at the negotiating table, and they will introduce themselves as the true limiting factors of what’s possible. If you think that politicians, developers, and neighborhood groups make terrible negotiating partners, you haven’t seen anything yet. We’ll learn that physical and natural laws – these laws of the jungle – don’t give a damn about insular planning strategies, political dictums, or social whims.

As the Age of Sufficiency really sinks in, the laws of the jungle will brutally dictate to us how our cities will function. We planners need to recognize that we may attempt to deal with energy descent and environment change in any way we like, but unless these plans take the laws of the jungle into consideration they will fail spectacularly.

Due to the intransigence of the laws of the jungle, it would behoove us to familiarize ourselves with how they work, and this week is as good as any to begin doing just that. In doing so, I hope to conclusively demonstrate the important role they serve in describing the operation of our cities. Further, this exercise will show how insular planning strategies will prove less than satisfactory toward mitigating the impacts of energy descent and environment change. And later, this knowledge will prove useful as a framework for elucidating planning strategies that conform to the laws of the jungle – what I call sufficiency planning.

The world is permeated at all scales with homologous structures called dynamic dissipative systems. Everything from chains of molecules, clouds, people, cities, and solar systems are all examples of dynamic dissipative systems. Despite their drastically different sizes and compositions, they all share some very basic structures and functions which makes their behavior somewhat predictable.

Dynamic dissipative systems comprise a flow of energy which interacts with a multiplicity of entities within a semi-permeable boundary creating a dense web of relationships resulting in emergent complexity. That’s a real mouthful, so I will attempt to describe each aspect in turn. First and foremost, dynamic dissipative systems all depend upon a flow of energy. Without it, dynamic activity would be impossible. In the case of cities energy flows would include biomass and fossil fuel inputs, for example. Without these inputs, the vibrancy of cities would cease to exist.

Second, all dynamic dissipative systems are comprised of a multiplicity of entities. The composition of these entities depends upon the scale at which you identify them. On the molecular level they could be called atoms; at the level of the city they could be identified as different and complementary parts including buildings, parks, people, pets, buildings, roads, and so on.

Third, all dynamic dissipative systems feature a semi-permeable boundary. Semi-permeable boundaries allow inputs such as necessary energy and resources in while allowing wastes out. Additionally they serve to promote proximity amongst multiplicities of entities by restricting the space between them. Proximity catalyzes the creation of meaningful interactions and relationships between multiplicities of entities. In the case of cities, experience shows that the closer together different complementary parts can be situated, the more relationships that can be formed between them, and the richer the diversity therein. The reverse is also evident: relationships between complementary parts operate over certain distances beyond which they cease to bind.

Over time, entities link and interact in space to create a dense web of relationships which serves the interests of the entities on the one hand and the whole system on the other. This process is governed by two seemingly competing yet complementary forces which organize the relationships: input minimization and output maximization.

The force of input minimization stimulates the entities to relate to one another in such a way as to minimize wasted effort. Over time, successful dynamic dissipative systems are those that establish very efficient relationships amongst their constituent entities on the local level. For instance, in the case of the city it’s very efficient from a time and energy perspective if certain entities – like people – have proximate access to many other entities which comprise the city, such as parks, shops, restaurants, churches, friends, their work, and so on.

On the other hand, the force of output maximization stimulates the system as a whole to relate to its environment in such a way as to maximize its control over available energy and resources. Over time, successful dynamic dissipative systems are those that outcompete other dynamic dissipative systems for available energy and resources. History is replete with instances when high output arrangements of living subsume low-output arrangements of living. For example, metastatic cities expand upon the landscape because their output of finished goods and technology so greatly overwhelms the low output of the natural landscapes they take over.

Though the forces of input minimization and output maximization seem opposite, it’s important to re-emphasize that they are complementary because they are occurring at two different scales: input minimization at the micro level and output maximization at the macro level. Increasingly stingy inputs result in larger outputs, and larger outputs allow for the replication of stingy inputs in a self-reinforcing cycle.

Dynamic dissipative systems react to the forces of input minimization and output maximization emergently; they spontaneously create relationships between entities in such a way as to minimize inputs and maximize outputs. Cities self-organize in this manner: inputs such as energy, time, and natural resources are efficiently transformed into knowledge, experience, finished goods, entertainment, waste, and pollution.

The process of self-organization in dynamic dissipative systems is exciting and unpredictable, and the results add up to something greater than the sum of its parts. Anyone who’s ever visited New York City has experienced the buzz of excitement you feel when enmeshed in such a rich experiential atmosphere: that palpable feeling is the quintessence of emergent complexity.

Over time dense webs of efficient relationships between entities build up and crystallize into distinct hierarchical, branching, and specialized flow structures at all scales. Through feedback loops, these flow structures organize energy and materials in such a way as to further advance efficiencies at the local level and maximize output at the macro level.

For instance, cities develop physical flow structures such as street networks, social flow structures such as school systems, economic flow structures such as retailing, and technological flow structures such as manufacturing systems. As you can see, these flow structures can be corporeal or intangible, formal or informal. Despite this variety of forms, at their base city flow structures are human-made and guide behavior in one way or another.

The size and complexity of flow structures is contingent upon the quantity and quality of resources that systems have access to, particularly with regard to their flow of energy. For example, metastatic cities have access to vast stores of energy in the form of fossil fuels. Therefore they are able to support large, complex flow structures. Looking at the size and complexity of a dynamic dissipative system will give you some idea of its access to available energy and resources.

Occasionally, conditions exist when there are no or few existing constraints on the energy and resources available to a dynamic dissipative system. Under these circumstances inputs do not behave minimally but instead maximally, until the point they encounter constraints. This situation can create complications and side effects for the formation of optimal flow structures.

The phenomenon of input maximization is reflected in the condition of metastatic cities. Here, individual entities – many citizens of the Western world – were relieved from their duty to efficiently utilize energy and resources due to the discovery of plentiful, cheap fossil fuels. The complications of this state of input maximization include traffic congestion, pollution, obesity, suburban sprawl, and anxiety. These are systematic side effects of what can only be described as energy and resource saturation.

Of course, sufficient amounts of energy, mobility, food, and stimulation are undoubtedly good things for people; however, what the sufficiency principle reveals is that past a certain point, additional inputs of energy into a system degrade the relationships between entities, and the entire system suffers as a result. It’s also important to note that ecological principles inform us that absences of limits to energy and resources are always a strictly temporary condition. And, indeed the Age of Exuberance is drawing to a close.

That brings us to the end of the description of dynamic dissipative systems. The main takeaway is that the laws of the jungle serve as the laws of the city, too. This fact has enormous implications for how we planners prepare our cities for deepening degrees of energy descent and environment change.

The subject of dynamic dissipative systems is exceedingly vast and complex. So obviously there was much information which I had to leave out of this posting. However, if you’re interested in reading further about systems, I would recommend books and presentations by Donna Meadows and Howard Odum. These two scholars are able to describe systems in simple, eloquent terms that are beyond my reach.

Soon I will articulate the principles of sufficiency planning, a series of planning strategies that conform to the laws of the jungle. However, first I must introduce you to a couple of other laws which also inform the operation of the city. That’s where we’ll pick things up next week.

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