The predicament

When most people hear the word ‘audit’ they usually think finances. But the act of auditing can be applied to other fields as well, as it’s defined as ‘an official examination and verification of accounts.’ If we were to take an audit of the world’s ecological ‘accounts’ and of the human activities interacting with them, we would have something we could refer to as an ecological audit. This inspection would comprise a snapshot of the health of the world’s ecosystems as well as a description of the human dynamics which are acting on it. It is now common knowledge within the scientific community that such an examination would reveal that the ecological basis for our survival is currently being irrevocably undermined worldwide by human activity.

Ecological impacts include biodiversity loss, deforestation, deforestation, desertification, topsoil loss, water salinization, ocean acidification, toxification of the natural environment, and overfishing, among others. At the same time, world population and population density is rising very quickly, as is relative affluence. Higher rates of relative affluence result in higher rates of consumption, which in turn lead to increasing demand for direct and indirect fossil fuel dependent technological applications including electricity and automobiles. Of course it’s well known that the use of fossil fuel dependent technologies results in carbon emissions, and these too are rising. The ecological audit would additionally show that the availability of cheap and plentiful resources, including fresh water and fossil fuels, are declining.

What becomes clear when one considers the sheer magnitude of the implications of the ecological audit is that the world we inhabit is changing in a fundamental way. We hear much about climate change, and it’s no secret that the release of carbon emissions is in fact changing our atmosphere. But what the above should make clear is that human activity is altering the environment in its entirety; we are in the midst of environment change. When I use the term environment change, I refer to the impacts of human behavior on the atmosphere as well as the lithosphere, hydrosphere, and biosphere – the sum of the implications of the ecological audit.

And the pace of environment change will likely only rise; we are reminded frequently that in the next 38 years population dynamics will push human numbers upwards of 9 billion while economic imperatives swell the worldwide economy three times over. These pressures will undermine the ecological basis for our survival further. The next generation of urban planners must understand that environment change is the backdrop against which all planning decisions will be made, and the context all cities will operate within; it is the sand shifting beneath our feet.

The implications of the ecological audit reveal to us that humanity has propelled itself into overshoot. Overshoot is an ecological term which describes a situation where an arrangement of living for a given population as a whole uses more resources and generates more waste than the planet can make and clean up. In short, human activity is changing the conditions of the environment from those which were favorable to the development of our current arrangement of living to conditions which will be favorable to some other arrangement of living. The process by which the world is made less suitable for certain arrangements of living and more suitable for other arrangements of living is called 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 should be noted that succession, as with all ecological and physical phenomena, is an inherently non-moral process. That is to say, the predicament of overshoot that we find ourselves in is not any one person or group’s fault in particular; it simply represents the cumulative outcome of countless interactions between individuals and with the natural processes of the environment. Within the context of the city, it represents all of the logical decisions urban dwellers make when they decide which brand of soap to buy at the store, whether to purchase a car, or decide where to live. All of these decisions, big and small, add up to environment change, overshoot, and succession.

Metastatic cities

Naturally you may be wondering which arrangement of living succession is making the world less suitable for. The answer: the metastatic city. The metastatic city is my term for an ecologically-destructive and energy intensive way of living that has risen to prominence in the Western world since the end of World War II. metastatic cities fail to operate within the limits of the resources and waste sinks available regionally, so they import additional resources from vast distant hinterlands to supply their needs. The term ‘metastatic’ comes from the noun ‘metastasis’, which implies the injurious spread of something, or the condition of transforming from something wholesome and good to something bad and corrupting.

It is important to recognize that though metastatic cities are a fairly new phenomenon, the seeds for their development – that is, the guiding principles that serve as a foundation for their construction – were sown in the years following the discovery of a ‘New World’ by Christopher Columbus in 1492. This Age of Exuberance as it’s called by Overshoot author William R. Catton, Jr. comprises a giddy period of expansion and progress stretching from the fateful voyage of the Spaniard until very recently.

There are three fundamental inputs which all came together simultaneously to set the Age of Exuberance into prominence. The first was the establishment and popularization of a series of guiding principles – ideas about how the world works – that recognized scientific reasoning as an infinitely powerful and provident force. The second was the onset of the Industrial Revolution and the development of the various technological innovations that defined it. The third was energy ascent – an upslope in the amount of energy made available for use on a per capita basis. These three inputs combined to form an irresistible force of progress which has been in effect for the past 500 years. This progress has enabled massive population, economic, and urban expansion. However, today, metastatic cities – the crowing jewels of the Age of Exuberance – are so numerous, large, and impactful that they are making the world less suitable for their own arrangement of living and making it more suitable for different arrangements of living.

Additionally, the hallmark of the Age of Exuberance – energy ascent – has recently come to a plateau, and soon will begin to dip downward. When energy descent begins in earnest, it will drag the Age of Exuberance down with it. All of us alive today have the distinction of living during the transition from the end of one age and the beginning of another. Over the next few centuries, the Age of Exuberance will give way to what can only be referred to as an Age of Sufficiency. This period of transition has only just begun, but will ravel onward and with greater intensity into the foreseeable future. The long term prospects of our cities will be defined by the constraints presented by energy descent; that is, a condition of permanently declining available energy.

Urban planning today

Sustainability is a catch word on every planner’s lips these days, yet precious little is understood about the ecological and energy inputs that sustain metastatic cities at their current levels of consumption. Nevertheless, this hasn’t prevented the production of a vast compendium of sustainability planning best practices issuing forth easy, painless solutions. Indeed, it’s difficult to find any planning article these days which doesn’t reference ‘sustainability’, ‘intelligent’, or ‘smart’ in some way; it becomes difficult at times to distinguish between sustainability planning and just plain old, commonsense planning.

While the literature varies somewhat, their recommendations generally conclude that increasing efficiency and renewable energy via technological applications can provide for a workable transition to an arrangement of living comprising a world full of increasingly dense, technologically-intensive, and affluent cities resembling New York, Vancouver, or Copenhagen… only ‘greener’. The trouble with a great many of these recommendations of course is that they are ignorant of physical and natural laws. That puts them at a disadvantage in advocating appropriate responses to the challenges we face.

So here we are entering the choppy waters of global urbanization and overshoot on a scale the world has never seen and we are advocating and implementing policies which will likely prove detrimental to our long term interests. Naturally one wonders how this could have come to pass.

I believe sustainability best practice is under the spell of two deeply-held and ultimately fallacious notions carried over from the Age of Exuberance. First, many Americans in general – and planners in particular – subscribe to the belief that continuing improvements in technology will ensure that the cities of today will be viable places to live in tomorrow, regardless of the scale of challenges we face.

While strategies promoting higher building efficiency and use of renewable energy have their merits, they typically tend to discount or pass over questions of diminishing returns, drawbacks, externalities, frailties, and unforeseen consequences of adoption. This is not altogether surprising; the profession of urban planning came of age during the heyday of the Age of Exuberance – a period of technological innovation, application, and deployment that the world had never seen before and will likely never see again.

Second, many in the planning community unwittingly advocate and implement off-course sustainability best practice due to their blind adherence to the belief that economic growth and physical expansion will continue irrevocably into the future.

Over the course of the 20th century, the Age of Exuberance was marked by rapid increases in mobility, physical expansion, social stimulation, and food availability. This eventually led to conditions of saturation in our cities, represented by traffic jams, suburban development patterns, stress, obesity, and other chronic health conditions. In response, Smart Growth principles gained appeal over the past 20 years as an insular planning strategy which sought to redirect economic growth back into a traditional urban format as opposed to the new sprawling, suburban one.

Insular planning strategies such as Smart Growth continue to enjoy prominence in the urban planning community to this day.  They serve as coherent strategies toward promoting liveability by reforming what I call the side effects of urban metastasis – the worst of the negative impacts associated with the meteoric growth of metastatic cities over the last 60 years.

However, mounting evidence suggests that our cities face different and serious challenges in the coming years, many of which insular planning strategies are not built to address. Of course the central awkward fact is that economic growth can no longer be regarded as inevitable, as it depends upon well-functioning ecological systems, cheap and plentiful energy supplies, and a stable climate. Evidence suggests that we can no longer take these inputs for granted in the future.

By remaining preoccupied with managing economic growth and the deleterious effects of physical expansion, we neglect the mounting challenges presented by ecological decline and energy descent. Our focus should shift toward addressing the issues on the horizon.

Flawed assumptions

One of the main purposes of this blog is to articulate how and why ingenuity-based and insular planning strategies will be less than successful in the face of overshoot and energy descent. As the Age of Sufficiency deepens, concerns about how to deal with snarled traffic flows and suburbanization patterns will give way to graver concerns such as local food and energy production. In short, as physical limits come into sight and economic growth becomes more sporadic and undependable, Smart Growth will become increasingly irrelevant, as its principles will fail to address the concerns and challenges of a great many cities and towns.

Another purpose of this blog is to critically examine the effectiveness of insular planning strategies through the harsh lens of physical and natural laws and important lessons of urban and environmental history. By doing so, I hope to test deeply-held assumptions about our circumstances.

I’m certain this critical examination will demonstrate that any sustainability recommendation which doesn’t call for curtailment and resilience as central strategies simply isn’t serious. By curtailment, I refer specifically to reducing energy consumption in real terms. By resilience, I refer to a practices and policies which ensure a city’s greater ability to withstand environmental and economic shocks from the outside, particularly relating to food, water, and energy availability.

Hopefully these insights can be applied toward correcting sustainability recommendations and policies which don’t comport with the physical and natural laws that govern the how the world actually works.

A way forward

Additionally, this blog will serve to broadcast knowledge of natural and physical systems which describe the inputs necessary to develop and maintain truly sustainable cities. This body of knowledge reveals the city as a dynamic dissipative system; not merely a collection of buildings and people, but a vibrant composition actively combining disparate inputs to create complex cultural, economic, and technological outputs.

As such, physical and natural laws form the basis of sufficiency planning which works within the confines of what we know to be true of how the world works from an ecological, thermodynamics, and systems-based footing. sufficiency planning concepts promote arrangements of living which at once provide for a high quality of life and are consistent with regional ecological limits. Strategies are modest, informal, small scale, and affordable. One central purpose of sufficiency planning is to retool our metastatic cities into a form that will be more resilient to the succession now underway during the beginning stages of the Age of Sufficiency.

Sufficiency planning is based in the sufficiency Principle, a concept popularized in the book The Logic of sufficiency by Thomas Princen. The sufficiency Principle is the extension of the commonsense idea that as one does more and more of an activity, there can be enough and there can be too much. For example, physical and natural laws demonstrate clearly that the world is a finite place and that cities, like all systems, must live within the boundaries of what is sufficient in order for the other systems they depend upon for survival to function.

In the context of a given city, this means paralleling the needs for resource inputs and waste sink outputs with the ability of the city’s region to support them. Because metastatic cities today require many times the resources and waste sinks available locally, adherence to sufficiency planning would imply massive changes to the ways our metastatic cities now function. I will discuss these subjects in much more detail over time.

Many readers may be bristling at the suggestion that we urban planners should subject our metastatic cities to practices and policies featuring dowdy concepts like curtailment and sufficiency. However, overshoot is already beginning to bear down on our metastatic way of life, and the implications will only deepen as the Age of Sufficiency sets in. Therefore, it is imperative that we fulfill our professional obligation as planners to advocate practices and policies that will help ensure that our cities become places that can remain liveable through an uncertain time. I believe that sufficiency planning can do just that.

The urban form that will be resilient to the impacts of ecological and energy descent are authentic cities. The authentic city is an ecologically-consistent way of living that has been popular throughout history in corresponding Ages of sufficiency. The authentic city is less a checklist of requirements to be fulfilled in order to attain sustainability, and more of a strategy to work backwards from what the local region will allow in terms of resource use and waste absorption.

Authentic cities appear throughout history under many different guises, during many different periods, and share precious few similarities amongst them. One aspect that they do all share however is their resilience in the face of low energy availability, and their adaptability to a range of different challenges from the outside. I chose the term ‘authentic’ to reflect the fact that these cities are original and unique to their region, conform to a set of very general, time-tested operating principles, and function within the ecological limits of their region in a modest, sufficient manner. I will discuss authentic cities in much more detail in later posts.


It’s clear that in order for our metastatic cities to make the progression to authentic cities, the profession of urban planning is going to have to make some changes. First, urban planners – particularly the next generation of urban planners – must familiarize themselves with physical and natural laws. I fervently believe familiarity with these principles provides the only way to manage against the implications of the ecological audit as succession progresses.

Second, planners must assert themselves as pathfinders in our journey toward discovering true urban sustainability. We must work together to engender discussion and conversation about the challenges we face by installing ourselves at the tables of all the de-facto decision makers; the time for timidity has long passed. Along the same lines, this blog is intended to broaden the perspective of many urban planners who find themselves in highly-specialized roles so they are prepared to build vision and awareness in others when the opportunity presents itself.

Third, planners must provoke new questions regarding the role and efficacy of ingenuity in planning best practice going forward, particularly those aspects which promulgate efficiency and renewable energy as the sole solution to the predicament of overshoot.

Fourth, planners must kindle a new sense of urgency regarding our predicament and an appreciation for the hard work that will be necessary to improve our situation. It will take many like-minded planners to help articulate and hone what sufficiency planning will come to look like. And we have no time to spare; as energy descent deepens and urban dwellers begin to see the old exuberant ways of life giving way to something unfamiliar, they will likely look to the next generation of urban planners for adaptive strategies. As planners, it’s up to us to fulfill our historical responsibility of ensuring the health, safety, and welfare for urban citizens during this oncoming Age of Sufficiency.

Mid Atlantic USA
March 2012

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