Glimpses of perma-circular America

Hello folks, I’m sorry it’s been so long since the last post. The summer came and went, and now school has started again, the daily rhythm has kicked in anew, and I’m realizing that more than two months have elapsed since I last posted anything. That’s actually strange because I have such a lot to report on!

Earlier this summer, my partner Agnieszka and I were in the western USA for most of July. We had our base camp in Los Angeles — one of the US’s least sustainable cities, or so it seems. It’s such a culture shock when you’re coming over from Europe, even for people  who, like us, have lived or grown up in the States. The expression “car culture” really comes into its own there. Most Americans, not so much by deliberate choice as by systemic necessity made gradually into a cultural value, use their automobiles in much the same way the average Swiss citizen uses their shoes. The utter “non-walkability” of LA is compensated for by a dizzying — and often infuriating — flow of car traffic. Joan Didion, the essayist and novelist who has spent most of her life in Los Angeles and surrounding towns (such as Malibu), famously wrote that “A good part of any day in Los Angeles is spent driving, alone, through streets devoid of meaning to the driver, which is one reason the place exhilarates some people, and floods others with an amorphous unease.” Exploring Los Angeles, Venice, Santa Monica, Pacific Palisades, Malibu, and Topanga (to name only a few) I felt plenty of exhileration — who wouldn’t, honestly? — but I’ll admit that I also did, on occasion, feel that “amorphous unease” Didion talks about.

More than once, as I was trying to fight off the sinking feeling caused by being stuck in snail-paced traffic on a ten-lane highway, I was telling myself that as someone who purports to be thinking about sustainability, new alternatives, and perma-circular horizons, coming up with ideas about how to make a megalopolis like LA more sustainable is of the utmost urgency. What use is the whole sustainability idea if it offers no path for tentacular settlements such as greater LA to become more walkable, more circular, less car-based, … in short, more perma-circular? Even to state that task makes it feel profoundly daunting when you’re struggling through rush-hour auto hell. Yet, that’s the measuring rod against which our ideas about a more sober, more humane, and less extractive society will ultimately be judged.

For now, all we have are little islands of perma-circularity. It’s the same in Switzerland, even though the country as a whole feels more compact, almost more claustrophobic in certain respects. My colleague from the EPFL in Lausanne, the Italian architect and urbanist Paola Viganò,  has coined the expression “Horizontal Metropolis” to describe the settlement and urbanization pattern of Switzerland. Swiss cities are neither compact and dense (a trend that is currently on the rise, and is being pushed by certain urban planning circles, but does not cohere with Swiss historical heritage), nor sprawling and disjointed. They are in between — an “isotropic” field of settlement that has numerous centers and where basic amenities for living, working, and playing are replicated rather than rationalized. There are very few food deserts in Switzerland, the urban-rural distinction doesn’t really hold up well, and while the Swiss are of course increasingly mobile and do commute more than before, there remains an amazing patchwork of coherent local economies and cultures. They’re not all in very good shape under the onslaught of current trends in globalization, population growth, and centralizing rationalization, but there is a wonderful legacy of horizontality still potentially available in order to revitalize and protect localized livelihoods. I am working with Paola Viganò and her team because I am keenly interested in understanding how human settlment patterns can be made more regenerative, circular, and less dependent on economic growth — in short, how to pull the Horizontal Metropolis from the fangs of physophilia (the “love of growth”) and of petro-anthropology (the “oil-driven human”) in order to make cities, towns, and villages perma-circular.

Oops — sorry for that momentary lapse into theory. It’s important, though, in order to understand why I was so struck by what I saw in Los Angeles and, later in our trip, in Arizona. Basically, what we did with Agnieszka (who is an expert on American culture and has worked a lot on war narratives and the political dimensions of Gothic literature, but is increasingly interested in ecocriticism) was to combine our vacation with the visit of just a small handful of those “islands of perma-circularity” which we found along our trail. I’ll post more detailed reflections on each of those places later on, but in this post I wanted to just give you a quick glimpse of what we saw. (I hope this won’t remind you too much of those annoying family afternoons when your somewhat distant aunt or uncle set up a slide show of their last vacation and you have to sit through an endless stream of pictures and narratives about events you care nothing for…)

I want to highlight two promising and still ongoing perma-circular experiments and one symptomatically failed, but nevertheless fascinating, eco-modernist one.

The Los Angeles Ecovillage: Pioneering urban perma-circularity

The Los Angeles Ecovillage (or LAEV for the initiated) is located in downtown LA in a neighborhood called Koreatown, within a slowly growing complex of refurbished townhouses and back alleys. It’s kind of magical: From the outside, when you walk around the gritty streets of Koreatown, you might well miss it; but once inside through the quirky, beautiful wrought-iron gate, you discover an oasis of co-housing, permaculture, and multifarious recycling — from organic waste to buildings to bicycles. (See their blog here.)

laev

We took a guided tour with the very dynamic and charming Lois Arkin, who is one of the main initiators of the ecovillage and has endless information, knowledge, and wisdom to impart on all aspects of alternative settlement and perma-circular living (although she doesn’t yet call it that way), as well as the social aspects of community life. It gave us a chance to chat with some of the inhabitants about communal governance and power sharing, and also to meet a couple of aspiring new residents still in the early stages of applying or even just debating whether to apply.

A few days later, I was invited to LAEV to give a public talk on “Designing a perma-circular economy: Permaculture as a new way of thinking”. It was a lovely warm evening with about 40 participants. I wasn’t too jet-lagged anymore, and was able to muster the energy for the presentation and the following Q&A session. It was wonderful to spend quality time, and to establish what we hope will be a longer-term friendship, with individuals who are serious — and realistic — about urban perma-circularity and who opened up enthusiastically to ideas and concepts about a new economy.

The Lyle Center for Regenerative Studies: Building a perma-circular university

Located at the edge of the campus of the California State Polytechnic Institute in Pomona,  of which it is an integral part, the Lyle Center for Regenerative Studies was created in 1994 by the late John Tillman Lyle, a master thinker in regenerative ecology and author of the major book Regenerative Design for Sustainable Development. Lyle died in 1998 and this center, which combines practical training, student and staff lodging, and applied research within an integrated framework of regenerative design, is his enduring legacy. It, too, is a magical place. It is beautifully set up — and was designed and built from scratch in the early 1990s — and it offers a fascinating glimpse into what a university can do to further practice and reflection on perma-circular horizons.

lyle

The basic outlook of the Lyle Center, as it was explained to me by its administrative secretary Deborah Scheider (who was kind enough to receive us the very day after we contacted her), is that regenerativity requires a combination of community outreach, hands-on practical research, and systematic theoretical work. John Lyle was a charismatic intellectual and practitioner who was able to demonstrate to his university’s authorities that, in our times of ecological crisis, we need to be determined to offer new, more low-tech tools for human communities to cycle resources and to build and grow food in a different way — not eschewing technology (the Center has a large solar-panel installation and its lodgings are not the proverbial earthen “hobbit houses” that eco-modernists like to make fun of), but taking a low-key, realistic stance towards the often illusory promises of the technophile promoters of a circular growth economy. There are numerous ongoing measurement and cycling research projects, as well as agricultural experiments. There’s also a great program of community outreach to nearby colleges and high schools, with frequent class visits to open kids’ eyes to the opportunities and importance of a perma-circular outlook.

Cal Poly students and Lyle Center staff cooperate in designing perma-circular devices and I was reminded quite a few times, during our visit, of the apparent kinship between this Center and the famous “New Alchemy Institute” created in the 1970s and still contributing today through its Green Center. In the near future, I hope (1) to have some of my students here in Lausanne reflect on the experience of the Lyle Center and (2) to approach my own university authorities to see whether a similar initiative could not be created here in Switzerland — under the “sisterhood” and patronage of our California forerunners, profiting from their two decades of experience.

Biosphere 2: An eco-modernist cathedral in the desert

As we drove out east of California towards the White Sands Desert in New Mexico, we passed through Tucson, Arizona. It is a very pleasant city with a hippie legacy of open-mike cafés and a laid-back atmopshere; its neighboring areas are also home to a few ecovillage projects. But in addition, the University of Arizona owns a facility located in the nearby desert — a place that became famous in the 1990s as a fully-fledged experiment in “artifical biospherics,” that is, the discipline that tries to engineer biospheres under artificial conditions in order to mimic and study processes of material and resource cycling, as well as studying the possibility for humans and nonhuman species to actually live in such artificial biomes. I am talking about the famous — and, to many ecologists, infamous — Biosphere 2.

b2_sunset2x

It is hard to do justice to this impressive, and in many ways depressing, but definitely futuristic facility. Located in the Arizona desert, it’s a gigantic glass and steel building with a few white geodesic domes added on. Under the glass, from the outside, one gets glimpses of a “rain forest,” a “desert,” an “ocean” (actually a large artificial pond engineered to reproduce the conditions and metabolic functioning of an ocean), a “mangrove,” and a “savannah.” In fact, all these biomes are supported by a huge amount of machinery — in the basement of the enormous building, where our tour guide took us, there are air pumps, water circulators, electric generators, and the occasional sign you glimpse in a concrete, neon-lit corridor saying surreal things like “Desert Basement.” That basement is called the facility’s “Technosphere.” As such, it is a clear testimony both to the boundless ambition of the initial project spearheaded by ex-astronaut John Allen and to the ultimate impossibility of creating a fully self-sustaining artificial biosphere. Immense external resources are necessary — beyond the free, incoming sunlight — to run and keep up Biosphere 2’s artificial biomes. It’s a losing bet against the complexity and scale of Nature, and against the vulnerability of human technology. It’s also rooted in an enduring dream — the dream of one day being able to escape from the Earth and expand humanity’s dominion to other places in the solar system.

Now used by the University of Arizona as a cutting-edge experimental facility in scientific ecology (with educational and artistic programs grafted on), Biosphere 2 once symbolized a Promethean ambition: that of creating an artificial, self-running biosphere that could offer glimpses into the construction of outer-space colonies. It was clearly part of the “spacing out” program I discussed in an earlier post, and will discuss again later in this blog. Humans tried to live inside the sealed human-made environment for a little more than two years. There is a small literature on how and why this “human experiment” eventually failed — while offering some interesting heuristic insights into how vulnerable ecosystems are to human intervention, and how impossible it seems to continue harboring the ambition of “terraforming” other planets instead of reducing our footprint on the one planet we already have. Biosphere 2 struck me as a scary but also endearing monument to humanity’s lack of perma-circular sensitivity — in a hyper-tech facility that claims to be fully devoted to circularity and ecology.

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In later posts, I want to go more in depth into lessons I learned from these visits. America is, like most other modern biomes on this Earth, a land of contradictions where hubris lives alongside deep ecological awareness. Perma-circular horizons are not absent from the US’s landscape. That’s an encouraging fact. It doesn’t make ideas such as “making Los Angeles sustainable” any easier to contemplate — but it shows that a few Americans, in growing numbers, already do care a lot about these horizons.

(And no, I’m not going to pitch in my own take on what’s lurking around the bend with the upcoming presidential election.)

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This blog post is published under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND license. This allows you to download the text and share it with others as long as you credit me, but you can’t change it in any way or use it commercially. For more information, go to https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/

2 thoughts on “Glimpses of perma-circular America

  1. Interesting blog. I would also recommend you get in touch with the publishers of YES! Magazine, headquartered on Bainbridge Island, WA. They have published many wonderful stories of communities developing sustainable economies. You may contact Fran Korten, who is just about to retire. Check http://www.yesmagazine.org. Her husband, David Korten, wrote books about how to move to a new economy.

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    • Thank you, Arthur. I’m a regular subscriber to YES! Magazine, so I agree with you that they are great and publish lots of wonderful, positive, and encouraging stories. I’m aware of David Korten’s work and have most of his books. That said, I would love to be in contact with them and publish something in their pages. Who in this field wouldn’t? I don’t know them directly, though, and haven’t been contacted by them. Let’s see what happens. Take care!

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