My collaborative-utopian-imaginative-radical open-action-research project Ecovillage L.A. 2066 has been out there now for a few days. It’s getting off to a somewhat slow start, but that’s probably normal. Perma-circularity is in itself a new notion to wrap one’s head around, and applying it to an urban “hyper-organism” such as Los Angeles might seem like a tall order even for those who are prepared to go perma-circular at full throttle.
So while, hopefully, the word gets around and gradually spreads, today I want to send out a somewhat geeky post. Some geekiness is called for, because we need a whole new vocabulary for the challenges facing us. Since the words currently being used to describe a fading world are rooted in Greek, let’s try to coin a few Greek neologisms that — while inevitably awkward at first — might assist us in the semantic transition we need in order to accompany the ecological transition.
I wish my Greek friends from Athens were within reach to help me here. But they’re not — super-busy as they are engineering a much-needed democratization movement for Europe — so I’m pretty much on my own. (Yanis, Danae, Nicos: If by any chance you’re reading this, please do intervene to correct heresies… I apologize in advance for transliterating all Greek words into English and for being utterly careless with accents.)
The metropolis is the “mother city.” When it is becoming disproportionately large, it gets termed a megalopolis — the (too) big city. In Greek, megalos carries the connotation of exaggerated largeness, as in the word “megalomaniac” that describes a person who tends to exaggerate and to present things as being larger than life. You can try to make a megalopolis as circular as you want, but it won’t let you impede its tentacular growth. Any effort to make a megalopolis qua megalopolis — that is to say, without questioning or breaking up its hugeness — “regenerative” is pretty much bound to make you a promoter of a circular growth model. Forget perma-circularity in that case: You’ll be doing great things with whatever stuff your megalopolis metabolizes, but you’ll be metabolizing ever more stuff.
If perma-circularity is ever to become reality, what’s needed — at least this is what I conjecture and would like to test — is a breakdown of the megalopolis into smaller, semi- (actually a bit more than semi-) autonomous entities. Let’s call them villages. The Greek word for village is chorio. The small village is the microchorio, and so Los Angeles in the 1850s was, with its roughly 1,600 souls, a “microchoric” settlement. (Addendum: The “ch” can be pronounced roughly like a “k” and will probably be in Anglo circles, but more precisely it’s pronounced like the “ch” in the German words auch or nach, or in the Scottish word loch.) Gradually, new neighborhoods — themselves growing from villages into towns into cities — joined the L.A. metropolitan area, which over 175 years grew totally “megalopolic.” But it did, in essence, proceed as the gradual networking int one large entity of a myriad neighborhoods, some larger, some smaller — but all gradually losing their place-based autonomy to melt into the megalopolis.
To visualize the process, check out this really cool animation which I am borrowing from the Curbed Los Angeles website (I hope it still works once the post is sent out and you open it on your own internet browser):
Ecovillage L.A. 2066 starts from the obvious premise that other ways of conjoining living settlements into a network are possible. Los Angeles should — and could — become a different sort of network. Perma-circularity requires many, many things. But if we want to have any hope of it becoming the ruling principle for such a huge, sprawling area — like many others in the world — we need a network of microchoric entities that form into a metrochorio, or “mother-network of villages.” The key difference between metrochorization and metropolization processes is that the former would proceed through the quick replication of strongly autonomous entities, while the latter has tended to operate through extension and overextension — predicated on the possibility of all localities inside the metropolis to obtain the material things they need from further and further away. This has been made possible, among other things, by a massive long-distance transport infrastructure and an unthinking reliance on unthinkable amounts of fossil fuels, chiefly petroleum. (That’s is why Herbert Girardet has aptly coined the term “Petropolis” to describe the dominant metropolization model.)
My hypothesis is that perma-circularity requires us to urgently replace the metropolization dynamic by a metrochorization dynamic. We need to seek inspiration, among other things, in nature’s capacity to build resilience through a combination of modularization and interconnectivity, in order to engineer a choriopolis — a “city of villages” or a “village city” — structured and infrastructured as a healthy, lively network of kiklikochorios — of “circular villages.” These circular villages will, because they are strongly autonomous while sharing a common sense and love of place (in Greek: topophilia), have a great chance of being perma-circular.
In that way, a rationally planned process of horizontalization — or what, with my EPFL colleagues from Lab-U, we call a process of horizontalized densification — can occur without the huge ecological and social as well as cultural damage caused by the overextension of the megalopolis. As the historian Robert M. Fogelson has shown in his classic book The Fragmented Metropolis, anarchic and ill-planned horizontalization leads not at all to healthy modularity-with-interconnectivity, but to pathological and pathogenic fragmentation, making many parts of the megalopolis feel both isolated and meaningless because they exude no sense of place and generate no topophilia. Fogelson argues that painful L.A.’s fragmentation comes hand in hand with its obsession of growth — and so, unless Angelenos grapple with the issue of macro-growth that has for so long been the mainstay of their city’s megalopolic pretensions, they will at best buy into the circular-growth-economy model. Genuine sustainability, in the form of a perma-circular network of perma-circular village entities, will continue to elude them.
To the best of my knowledge we have nothing, anywhere on earth, resembling a close-knit network of strongly autonomous perma-circular villages cooperating to keep that network itself perma-circular. But we can begin by gathering loads of inspiration and information from existing ecovillages and eco-settlements, many of which already belong to the Global Ecovillage Network — although they don’t yet form a metrochoric region by any stretch of the imagination. For an area as vast as L.A. to become a metrochorio, or mother-network of villages, we’d need to reflect on mobility and communication infrastructures to balance autonomy and connectivity, on the creation and circulation of local currencies and their interconnection, on the recreation of a “topophilic” sense of place which requires a new existential geography of L.A. and a new existential anthropology of “being in L.A.,” on the return of agriculture and the advance of permaculture into every nook and cranny of every “circular village,” on energy descent and the relinquishing of petroleum as our main source of fuel — and on so many, many other things.
We’re nowhere near any of it yet. But that’s what utopia is — not pie-in-the-sky flights of imagination but, in the apt words of University of Bristol sociologist Ruth Levitas, a method for the imaginary reconstitution of society. Can we any longer afford to let metropolization bleed into megalopolization, robbing us of a significant piece of what makes us human? Without imaginary reconstitution, there is unlikely to be any material reconstitution. There is likely to be, alas, more of the same: growth, sprawl, social and cultural fragmentation, and ecological unsustainability. That tiny island I’ve discovered called the Los Angeles Ecovillage — a wonderful little kiklikochorio tucked away in the middle of Koreatown — gives me all the utopian impulse I need. Let’s change our vocabulary and the direction of our imaginations. Let’s envision the “Los Angeles Metrochoric Area” for 2066.
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