This is the final installment of a series of posts designed to introduce physical and natural laws and explain how they govern the operation of our cities. I undertook this daunting task because the consequences of ecological decline and energy descent are beginning to bear down on our cities in earnest. In order to deal effectively with this predicament, it’s going to become increasingly important for planners to understand how these “laws of the jungle” influence the operation of our cities so we can begin organizing our planning policies around them.
A few weeks ago I introduced dynamic dissipative systems which organize the energy and matter in our universe at every scale. By looking at cities as dynamic dissipative systems we gain value insights about their requirements and behavior and can better estimate how energy descent and ecological decline will affect them.
Last week I introduced the laws of thermodynamics and showed how they influence the way energy and materials flow through dynamic dissipative systems. I mentioned how systems including cities depend on available energy, which develop, maintain, and replace self-organizing flow structure. Further, I explained how the law of entropy claims a bit of energy as waste heat as it progresses through a system, and that successful systems are those that become efficient in minimizing this effect as much as possible with the goal of expanding their size and/or enriching the condition of their flow structures.
These insights add up to the recognition that the city possesses a metabolism that governs its internal processes, including the rate at which it consumes resources from outside itself, processes those resources, and eliminates wastes back into the larger environment. These observations also reveal the city as a system embedded within other larger systems upon which they depend, such as the natural systems of the Earth.
This week I’m going to expand on the topic of interactions between cities and the larger environment by introducing ecological principles. In doing so, my first order of business is to clear up a misconception about ecology. Many people believe that ecological principles only apply to strictly natural systems which are far removed from the day to day influence of humans. This view is much too limited. When we recognize that the city is only one system embedded within many other ones, we see that cities too are subject to all the laws of the jungle – including ecological principles.
This embeddedness of systems is a keystone consideration in ecology, because systems are constantly interacting with each other dynamically. The sum of these interactions causes the environment itself to change. Through feedback mechanisms, systems change in kind to respond to their new surroundings and circumstances. The name of this process is succession.
Succession is an orderly and directional process of change in the composition of an ecosystem, resulting from effects of its life processes upon its environment. It’s a good starting point to discuss ecological principles, because it highlights a very important and basic truth: no system operates in a vacuum. For example, the dynamics of human systems and natural systems can no longer be understood to operate in isolation from each other. On the contrary, human systems including cities operate squarely within the confines of the larger natural system.
The concept of succession is summed up nicely in playwright Bertolt Brecht’s quote: “Because things are the way they are, things will not stay the way they are.” The idea is that any particular use of a place makes that place less suitable for the continuance of that particular use, and more suitable for other uses. Before I start applying this concept to the relationship of our cities to the natural environment, I will show how succession works on a small scale.
Imagine for a moment an abandoned parking lot. Succession describes the process by which that lot is reclaimed by nature and transformed into a hardwood forest. At first, pioneering weeds capitalize on cracks in the pavement and propagate in those interstitial spaces. This process continues until the weeds make the parking lot area less ideal for their own continuance and more ideal for the ascendency of grasses. These grasses soon out-compete the pioneer weeds and fill the vacant lot in their place. Next come the small softwood pines, and so on. This process continues itself, gradually slowing down, until a stable climax community – in this case a hardwood forest with a numerous, diverse range of critters – occupies the site.
This example points out that succession is not static, but dynamic. The old parking lot didn’t remain a parking lot forever, nor was it overrun with weeds in perpetuity, and nor did it transform directly into a forest. The parking lot became what it would become gradually, in several stages, over a period of time.
The hardwood forest can be called a climax community because the members of its biotic community stay in balance and maintain equilibrium with each other so that the internal and external forces at work on the system are mitigated. This quality of symbiosis in climax communities makes them more resilient to outside shocks than systems at earlier developmental stages.
However, sometimes a sufficiently-strong ecological disruption occurs which favors some biotic community members over others in the climax community. When this happens, balance is lost, and the process of succession starts anew.
For example, imagine a pond with a numerous, diverse range of critters living in it like insects, frogs, and plants. In the autumn, decaying autumn leaves on land – detritus – are carried by runoff from melting snows into the pond. In the spring, a situation develops where warmer temperatures allow the algal population to reproduce exponentially into a bloom, taking advantage of the giant store of available energy brought the previous autumn. Through their life process, the algae consume dissolved oxygen in the water, usually resulting in the death of many other types of animals and plants. However, when the inflow of available energy is ceased, the algae die off too.
It could be said that for a brief moment in the succession of the pond one community member exuberantly capitalized on a sufficiently-strong ecological disruption – in this case, a glut of available energy and resources. When the ecological disruption subsides, the community members come back into balance again via succession and re-establish a climax condition.
It’s important to remember that succession is a non-moral process. It might seem unjust to some degree that the fish should die during an algal bloom, but that just serves as the way nature deals with an influx of excess detritus. If the algae don’t break down the nutrient-rich sediment, it would accumulate in the pond and eventually fill it in. So, algal blooms are a necessary stage in the long-term succession of the pond; the ecological disruption is temporary.
Now, let’s apply succession to the human part of this story. That way we’ll be in a position to evaluate what all this means for cities. For starters, it’s important to remember that humans comprise but one member of the biotic community. Like other living systems, a chief concern for humans is staying alive over time – that is, maximizing their carrying capacity.
For a long time, natural selection alone determined the maximum carrying capacity of a population of a given biotic community member. However, at a point in the distant past, humans developed the ability to augment their maximum carrying capacity via technological innovations.
These technological innovations served as ecological disruptions which raised human carrying capacity by diverting available energy and resources that would have been available to other biotic community members. This process is called takeover. Takeover speeds up succession by creating conditions which favor some biotic community members over others.
Takeover progressed throughout human history in various stages. From between 2 million BC and 4000 BC, humans increased proficiency in toolmaking and hunting and gathering techniques. Use of fire provided warmth, warded off predators, and could be used for cooking previously indigestible substances. Also, the invention of the bow and arrow, which could be thought of as the first real machine, served as an extension of the human body.
These inventions allowed humans to literally take over use of resources that would have been utilized by other members of the biotic community; that is the essence of takeover. Whatever carrying capacity existed to support humans beforehand, the use of fire and the bow and arrow increased that amount.
Around 7000 BC, horticultural techniques improved to the extent that humans could cultivate flowers, fruit, and vegetables. Additionally, humans began domesticating animals which served as a much more dependable food source than hunting could provide. Again, carrying capacity was increased, as these plants and animals were apportioned for use by humans at the expense of the larger biotic community.
Around 3000 BC, the mass production of food commenced due to utilization of plow-based agriculture. The plow was important because it freed up some humans to engage in non-food procurement activities, thus diversifying societal organization and leading to the development of the first civilizations in Egypt and Mesopotamia. Large scale agriculture greatly increased humans’ ability to take over larger portions of natural world.
Refinements to previous breakthroughs continued briskly through Antiquity; these allowed for the development of philosophy in the case of Ancient Greece, and expansion in the case of Rome. The Roman Empire, which famously fell in 476, left a yawning gap which was filled in with what would become known as the Middle Ages.
The Middle Ages, which ran from about 500 to 1500 AD functioned as a timeout from rampant technological improvement and expansion of takeover. It was a time of changelessness in European society. During this period of approximately 1,000 years the world was small again and people lived humbly and piously in villages and small, compact cities.
That would all change in 1492 when Columbus discovered a ‘New World’. This discovery revolutionized Europeans’ ideas about the world. It was a period of time when the world and its resources seemed limitless and opportunities for expansion were obvious. Overshoot author William Catton marks this event the beginning of the Age of Exuberance – a term which represents the centuries of growth and progress since Columbus’ discovery of the New World until very recently.
From this point onward, takeover asserted itself through four themes: expansion, progress, autonomy, and growth. These themes would serve as the ideological basis of Western civilization for hundreds of years to come.
Physical expansion came in the form of empire-building and colonization. Technological progress was marked by the First Industrial Revolution and the invention of the steam engine by James Watt in 1712. Economic growth came with the formalization of capitalism by Adam Smith’s in 1776. Social autonomy was marked by the onset of the Enlightenment, which provided the ideological seeds for the American and French revolutions in 1776 and 1799, respectively.
Each of these four themes organized Western society in such a way that takeover could be augmented and carrying capacity increased. By the Second Industrial Revolution in 1850, humans began to utilize a novel approach to enlarging carrying capacity called drawdown.
Drawdown is the process by which surrounding resources are used up faster than they can be replaced locally (and so ends up borrowing from other places at other times). The processes of industrialization required massive inputs of available energy which only fossil fuels could supply.
This time humans were not merely taking over from other community members an additional portion of available energy and resources. Instead, humans began supplementing carrying capacity by digging up a temporarily-available, finite pool of condensed sunlight energy – fossil fuel – in addition to that being provided by constant sunlight. The discovery and exploitation of fossil fuel resources in the mid 19th century represents the beginning of energy ascent.
With greater inputs of available energy in nearly unlimited quantities, Western society positioned itself to fully implement the four themes of the Age of Exuberance by expanding physically, progressing technologically, providing for social autonomy, and growing economically. And it has proven extremely effective in doing so; since its inception it has effectively taken over the world. This prosperity fueled totally by drawdown has dangerously re-enforced the myth of limitlessness, which informs our decision-making processes to this day.
The predicament of course is that the Age of Exuberance is presently coming to an end. The Age of Exuberance’s modus operandi has been to extract resources from the Earth at an increasingly high rate, and then return them back into the environment in a more-degraded condition – whether it’s through littering, pollution, emissions, or solid waste.
We are learning that on a finite planet, the more of a non-renewable resource you extract, the more energy and raw materials are needed to extract what is left; the more of a persistent pollutant you dump into the atmosphere, and the more energy and raw materials are needed to prevent the pollutants from interfering with other activities.
It’s important to understand that unlike takeover, drawdown is a necessarily temporary strategy in raising carrying capacity. When the carrying capacity of one biotic community member is enlarged beyond what constant sunlight can provide, the situation is called overshoot. The necessary sequel to overshoot is a crash down to a level commiserate with available energy from constant sunlight.
I know it’s not popular to consider the fact that human systems are natural systems subject to ecological principles. But the perspective bears fruit, so please bear with me. In the pond example above, the algae engaged in takeover by appropriating a disproportionate share of resources available for their own use. Like the algae, it’s clear that metastatic ways of living too have engaged in takeover and that those actions are speeding up succession. In short, metastatic cities are presently creating conditions which favor other, less energy intensive ways of living.
Additionally in the pond example above, the ecological disruption was an influx of detritus; the Western world’s was establishing a way of life based on fossil fuels. Like the algae, the metastatic way of life has overextended itself via drawdown by relying on available energy and resources from detritus – fossil fuel – in addition to constant sunlight. As the supplies of cheap and easily extracted fossil fuels declines, so must the prevalence of a way of life dependent upon those resources. More intensive drawdown (aka ‘drill baby drill’) can forestall crash temporarily, but it cannot prevent it, as it will ensure that the crash will be more severe when it does occur.
Again, there is nothing moral about this process; the laws of the jungle are as natural as gravity. The value of the algae metaphor is to show how ecological processes work in a context simple enough to permit clarity. It is meant to illuminate that humanity is no more exempt from the laws of the jungle than algae.
Algae cannot foresee changes in their environments; they can only react to those changes as they appear. This is to be expected; natural selection happens in response to the present availability of niches in a given environment, without regard for their possible future availability.
In theory at least, human beings are not quite so limited. Our ability to anticipate the future is far from limitless, but the attempt needs to be made. The frustrating thing is that the need for resources now prevents mankind from always exercising the self-restraint they might know was necessary to ensure resources for posterity.
These laws of the jungle – including dynamic dissipative systems, thermodynamics, and ecological principles – present a new vision of how cities work and elucidate their risks. They inform us that we can create any kind of city we want, as long as it conforms to what the systems we rely on will allow. They underscore the importance of planning for a future much different than the present.
Once we start giving the laws of the jungle some respect and attention, we can create appropriate planning policies for the time that comes next – the Age of Sufficiency. For this, I have outlined some core principles of planning best practice which I call Sufficiency planning. I will discuss these principles in future posts.
For that matter, I’m going to be going into much, much more detail on all of these subjects in the near future. In the meantime, I ask you to consider this series of posts on how the laws of the jungle govern the operation of cities as only the crudest and most general treatment of the subject. I highly encourage interested readers to delve deeper into this subject matter by consulting works by Howard T. Odum, Geoffrey West, William Catton, Richard Heinberg, Lewis Mumford, and Donna Meadows.
Next week I’m going to start outlining the dimensions of the challenges our metastatic cities face as the Age of Sufficiency takes hold.