Newer glimpses of permacircular America (Part 1 of 4)

Before the academic year gets into full swing and I am swallowed up by the maelstrom of daily chores, I wanted to send off this four-part post with my impressions of the second Southwest USA trip that my partner Agnieszka and I took this past summer. It isn’t meant to be a tedious travelogue – nor is it, I hope, the equivalent of the proverbial slide show a distant relative puts you through during a weekend family brunch. Rather, I’d like to record and reflect on certain things about the United States’ past or present that I think might be relevant for all those of us who care about perma-circularity (by that name or any other) and about a lastingly maintained one-planet footprint.

In the “age of Trump,” as these troubled times are more and more often coming to be known, straining to see the forest for the trees is pretty hopeless. The general shape of American policies and ideologies is baffling, to say the least – among others, in the area of environmental issues. The outwardly visible contours of the “forest” that is America are looking increasingly unattractive and worrisome. The reverse strategy of seeing the trees for the forest seems more promising: not looking just at the overall ugliness of US politics, media and ideology, but focusing instead on grassroots, ground-level, piecemeal initiatives, of which there are a lot. One the enduring paradoxes of the United States throughout the ups and downs of its reactionary temptations (whether they be Republican or Democrat) is how many truly progressive, daringly visionary minds and communities it keeps producing. The reactionary “forest” keeps giving life and energy to progressive “trees.” If ever there were a tangible illustration of what “dialectic” means, this would be it.

After a few days of getting over our jet lag in Los Angeles (where Agnieszka grew up and where her father still lives), our trip took us up to Berkeley and Bodega Bay, then back through the Central Valley down to L.A. From there, we embarked on a long drive through and into the gorgeous Southwest: first to Arizona where we stopped in Phoenix, Arcosanti and Sedona, then on to New Mexico where we visited Àcoma Pueblo, Truth or Consequences (yes, there’s a town called that…), Santa Fe, Taos, and Taos Pueblo. An excursion took us to the fabled ruins of Chaco Canyon and then back to Arizona – through Navajo and Hopi territory, on to Winslow and then back up to the south rim of the Grand Canyon. Driving south once more, we relaxed a second time in Sedona and then finally headed back to southern California through the sweltering Sonoran Desert near Yuma, ending up in San Diego – our last leg before the final return to L.A. for a precious few remaining days before the return flight to Switzerland.

All along the way, we witnessed mostly the proverbial gigantism and unsustainability of Southwestern American life – the oases in the desert, the pharaonic water diversion works, the massive highways, the air-conditioned strip malls. It’s all true, blatantly so. The United States’ still dominant Euro-American colonial import culture is deeply fragile and has the lack of resilience of a hippo that strayed out into the Sahara. And yet – in the midst of the reminders of past failures and the signs of present ones, there are islands of hope, initiative and potential. Those of you who are interested in the broader issues of America’s culturally ingrained lack of self-restraint can periodically consult my other blog, which I entitled “U.S.A.: The Unsustainable State of America.” But for now, let’s head out to northern California and then to the Southwest, shall we?


Panoramic view of Berkeley and the San Francisco Bay

1. The perpetually postponed ecocity: Berkeley

The previous summer, Agnieszka and I had only been able to spend a few hours in Berkeley, quickly downing a latte in the legendary (and since then shut-down) Med Café, wanting to hastily browse through a bookshop but finding out it was still closed, and walking along Telegraph Avenue for a swift selfie in front of Sproul Hall, the epicenter of the 1964 student protests. This time, we had the good fortune of kindly being hosted by Linda Williams, one of Agnieszka’s former mentors who is now a retired professor at the University of California, Berkeley. She and her husband Paul showed us around the city, and I understood why ever since last year I had wanted to come back. Bookshops galore, of course – my personal soft spot (or is that vice?) – but overall a wonderfully relaxed, small-town feel that, I’m sure, persists even during the hustle and bustle of the academic year. Berkeley is one of the hot spots of California’s progressive population, and is pretty much despised (and notoriously sought out as an emblematic speaking venue) by the conservative right as a hotbed of liberal adversaries. Pretty much everything I saw convinced me that this is indeed the case.

Ecotopiua_book_coverTalking with Linda and Paul, who had lived through and been active in the 60s protests here, we found out that Ernest Callenbach, the author of the famous ecological utopia entitled Ecotopia (as well as its prequel, Ecotopia Emerging), had lived and worked here – and had even been Linda’s mentor. Callenbach’s books are part of the long line of utopias inaugurated by Thomas Moore in the 16th century, but it specifically deals with the construction of a perma-circular society and economy (although of course he didn’t use the term). Its context is the hypothetical secession of northern California from the rest of the United States in the 1970s, to form a new country called Ecotopia. A fictional newspaper reporter from the USA sends vignettes home to describe the Ecotopian mores, and at the same time records his own gradual realization of the benefits that come with breaking away from the unsustainable model of US culture. A timely and engaging read, Callenbach’s books encourage us to take an unflinching look at how an “ecotechnic” culture using simpler (though not necessarily rudimentary) tools and technologies, and consuming far less could durably fit into our one and only available planet. As such, it provides the exact reverse utopia to what the “spaced-out” promoters of the high-tech experiment of Biosphere-2, which we visited last year and which I chronicled in a previous post, attempted and failed to construct in the desert near Tucson, AZ.

While Callenbach doesn’t explicitly say so, Berkeley must have been a backdrop for his reflections on how to scale down and “ecologize” California’s urban landscape. The whole Bay Area (on clear days you can glimpse San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge from the hills above the Berkeley campus) has long been, and remains, a teeming hotbed for radical ecological re-thinking. I have no aversion to hippie-ism – quite to the contrary, I believe that some strands of the hippie constellation understood the world a lot better than what Reaganite critics (including the University of California’s own directors in the mid-1960s) claimed. They fully realized that what I’ve called the “5 Rs” of perma-circularity demand radical social and cultural change – that would be a sixth “R” for “radical mutation.”

Ecocity_Berkeley_book_coverI felt inspired during our Berkeley stay to have a deeper look at Richard Register’s book from the mid-1990s, entitled Ecocity Berkeley. Based in Oakland – right next to Berkeley – Register has been one of the most visionary proponents of radically re-thought models of urban life, as I documented in this blog in an earlier post on isotropy and fractality. In this book, he delineates the key elements of a transformation of Berkeley into a perma-circular eco-settlement. A significant amount of this process rests around what Register calls “creek restoration” – the act of re-opening creeks (most notably Strawberry Creek) that were built and paved over so that Berkeleyians can enjoy the sight and sound of running water again, and so that wetlands at the seafront can be revitalized. Less car traffic and better public transport, as well as a degree of densification, would transform Berkeley into an ecocity.


Berkeley’s ecocity future? (Drawing by Richard Register)

This has never actually happened – at least not yet. Berkeley is charming and tightly knit but, both on the outskirts and right in the center, it nevertheless bears many of the hallmarks of what makes US culture fundamentally unsustainable. Even entrenched remnants of hippie-ism and staunchly progressive politics haven’t crowded out consumerism and wastefulness – and perhaps that’s the main obstacle towards a truly perma-circular America: that most hipsters and “culture jammers” are, in the way Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter put it in their hard-hitting, abrasive book Nation of Rebels, still too compromised with the dominant way of life to fully grasp the deeper demands of what a one-planet life would really demand. Culture jamming, Heath and Potter suggest, can and often does invert itself into a commercial culture of its own, with fashion items, books, media, “alternative” tourism, “cool” but expensive venues and a general consumerist thrust that can often defeat the purpose. Perhaps what “alternative” Californians – just like the rest of us – need alongside Callenbach’s enthralling ecotopia and Berkeley’s mellow bobo-ism are somewhat darker prophecies of decline and slowdown, such as John Michael Greer’s The Long Descent and The Ecotechnic Future.


The I-5 in the scorching heat

This is all the more so since, as soon you extract yourself from the comparatively lush and moist Bay Area (check out Sausalito’s hyper-trendy but completely unaffordable boat houses), the reality of unsustainability hits you hard. This is what we experienced as we drove back from Berkeley to Los Angeles along Interstate 5 – a 98-to-107-degree inferno through which a giant serpent of captured water flows down to irrigate a gigantic desert oasis – the Central Valley – and to ultimately deliver its bounty to a water-guzzling metropolitan area of more than 15 million people: Los Angeles and its almost continuous extension to the south, all the way to San Diego.


The California Aqueduct

2. Mulholland’s water-guzzling monsters: Glimpses of the California and L.A. Aqueducts

California’s Central Valley is a dam-and-aqueduct-fed horticultural “montage” – an engineering feat somewhat akin to other vegetable- and fruit-growing artifices such as the Negev Desert in Israel. Hundreds of square miles of plantations and ranching land are irrigated with the help of mostly one huge open-air pipeline: the California Aqueduct, which of course flows in only one direction, north to south. It originates not too far from Berkeley (more precisely, between Berkeley and Sacramento) and winds its way down to Lake Perris, in the so-called “Inland Empire” near San Bernardino and Riverside, south-east of L.A.


The Los Angeles Aqueduct

As one approaches Los Angeles over the pass that leads out of the Central Valley and down into the San Fernando Valley, another engineered “serpent of water” slithers down the slopes coming from the east: the Los Angeles Aqueduct, which is actually a pair of gigantic pipelines that siphon off water from Mono Lake and from Owens Lake, both located far away in the Sierra Nevada region, in the direction of the state border with Nevada. Both the California and the L.A. Aqueducts are totally artificial watersheds that channel masses of water towards southern California’s massive urban agglomerations, while also helping irrigate agricultural areas along the way.

The history of these large works is complex and sinuous, and has been told in many books, among which David Carle’s remarkable book Water and the California Dream, which I bought in a Venice Beach bookstore and immediately started delving into. One of the towering figures in L.A.’s and California’s water history is William Mulholland. An engineer for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power in the 1900s and 1910s, he campaigned for steadily increasing water flows to the metropolis, thereby making possible L.A.’s and southern California’s growth boosterism – while at the same time, in private, taking long nature hikes and lamenting the disappearance of wildlife and untouched spaces in modern America. It was the heyday of the American conservation movement – which had led to the creation of the National Parks – as well as the time of southern California’s first major growth push under the influence of ferocious real-estate speculation. Water was, literally, of the essence; as Les Standiford so eloquently puts it in his book Water to the Angels, Mulholland’s vision of how water sustains growth makes him indirectly responsible for most large metropolitan areas in the world today. A population can only ever grow as far and as fast as its water supply permits.


William Mulholland in 1913: “There it is. Take it!”

It was November 5, 1913; as the first acre-feet of Owens Valley water tumbled down that aqueduct we saw snaking down from the mountains at the limit of San Fernando Valley, Mulholland reportedly addressed the assembled crowd from the podium of the inauguration ceremony and said, half-triumphantly and half-ominously, “There it is. Take it!” He seems to have had more than an inkling of things to come. Perhaps he already foresaw that southern California would consistently market itself and its – thoroughly unsustainable – attractiveness with the help of water resources captured in faraway landscapes and would never really look back to pause and return the favor. It was going to be just a fast-forward race of “progress” and “growth.” Any notion of impact minimization, let alone perma-circularity, would fall by the wayside and effectively die.


The Colorado River Aqueduct

Later, in the 1940s, the Colorado River Aqueduct issuing from Parker Dam (on the CA-AZ state border, to the northwest of Phoenix, due east of Joshua Tree National Park) was added, effectively ensuring – together with the symmetric Central Arizona Project aqueduct that goes off to the east towards Phoenix and Tucson – that hardly an acre-foot was left in the Colorado’s flow to reach its delta in Mexico. The Sierra Nevada has paid a high price that was never redeemed. The areas around Mono Lake and Owens Lake are struggling to recover a viable local economy – if they ever succeed – while L.A. roars on ahead, mostly oblivious to what a perma-circular mindset would imply: as David Carle argues so convincingly, on purely local water resources, the population that could be supported inside the watershed would be divided by about 15 or 20. That’s structural unsustainability for you… unless we decide – and this is a huge topic in the whole American Southwest – that artificial, engineered watersheds are now the norm, so that it no longer makes sense to harp after “natural” ones.


Hoover Dam, feeding water to Las Vegas

It’s true that most if not all Southwestern waterways are already heavily regulated, dammed and artificialized. In a sense, the Colorado River as well as the Rio Grande and, further west, Los Angeles River have all been disfigured – or is that “transformed” and “reconfigured”? – into what some ecologists today call novel ecosystems, that is to say, “hybrid” ecosystems within which the frontier between the human and the nonhuman has been blurred into insignificance, so that the “natural” itself has become thoroughly anthropic. I’m not yet totally sure what to think of this. On the one hand, it’s true that the idea of “untouched” nature has largely itself become an artificial mental construct (see Jedediah Purdy’s After Nature, Jamie Lorimer’s Wildlife in the Anthropocene: Conservation after Nature, or Emma Marris’s Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World). On the other hand, the claim by adepts of “novelty” that human modifications of ecosystems and landscapes have somehow themselves become part of “nature” smacks of glib eco-modernism vindicating the religion of progress and growth – and I’ve expressed my skepticism towards that stance in an older post. So while the jury may still be out on these difficult epistemological issues, for the time being I prefer to stick to a position skewed towards nature’s relative autonomy and – yes – sacredness, as well as towards humanity’s stewardship and responsibility. Such a position feels intellectually and emotionally right to me and to people I’ve met or read whose ideas matter to me.

3. Fierce little island amid the sprawl: The L.A. Ecovillage

On July 19, I got my first shot at a moment of synthesis, where I could somehow gather the threads of all these impressions and reflections and try to formulate some concrete implications of perma-circularity in the context of the American Southwest.

LAEV_talk_cover.pngI had the great pleasure of being hosted by Lois Arkin and her co-dwellers at the L.A. Ecovillage for a talk. My topic was the future of Los Angeles as a network of decentralized, existentially meaningful ecocities and how Switzerland’s model of urbanization – which my colleague Paola Viganò calls the “Horizontal Metropolis” – might challenge and inspire today’s Angelenos. I had already done a talk at the LAEV last summer and was truly looking forward to meeting everyone again. I wasn’t disappointed. A group of about 50 people gathered in the LAEV’s wonderfully rambunctious inner garden patio for a potluck dinner, after which we proceeded to reflect together for over two hours (with a break) on the future of the city.

Was I preaching to the choir? In a sense, yes, since this group were all deeply concerned with, and interested in, perma-circular horizons – how to mend their beloved city’s structural unsustainability and finally find a course beyond the 100-year trajectory of “boosterism” and real-estate-driven sprawl that made it into the behemoth it is today. I suggested some ideas that most “alter-Angelenos” have cherished for a long time, such as resurrecting the fabled tram network that graced the city up into the 1920s. I also added in ideas from my previous post on isotopy and fractality, leading up to the ecotopian project of another L.A. – less populous, less growth-obsessed, less sprawling and less “heterotropic.”

LAEV_talk_excerptEssentially, the idea I defended (taking inspiration in part from Richard Register and in part from Paola Viganò) was that L.A. planners could draw lessons from Switzerland’s urbanization patterns by “modularizing” settlements, making them both less involuntarily connected and more voluntarily connected: the landscape of sprawling heterotropy, which forces most Angelenos to spend hours every day in their cars, could be replaced with a more existentially meaningful, dense but not compact or crammed, isotropy. More self-contained, less high-tech but more intensely alive eco-settlements linked by a dense network of street cars: this was, basically, the vision. (So for the more initiated, I clearly had quite a bit of Christopher Alexander, the other great “alternative” Berkeley architect, in there too.) The audience was very attentive and questions abounded; not everyone bought into all my specific proposals for a more perma-circular Los Angeles, but by and large there was agreement that something in that general direction was called for. It was an intense, engaging evening – the kind where I feel that my academic research efforts pay off in a powerful way. I plan to make that talk into a later post, if and when I have the time.

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Lois Arkin (bottom right) and other LAEV members

The Los Angeles Ecovillage is simply a wonderful mood booster. You spend even a short time there and you find out that some people – a precious little island of them, totally determined and mostly joyful and happy – do get by within this sprawling nerve racker of a city without a car, using only bikes and public transport, living with a low and falling ecological footprint, and slowly but surely creating a model that stands in the landscape almost as a paradigm. Lois Arkin told us that LAEV can hardly keep up with the requests for research visits and interviews that have been piling up during the past year or two. One of my former students from Belgium, Pascale Smeesters, and her husband came through LAEV last year on their trip around the world making a documentary about alternative living models. A recent book of note, A. Whitney Sanford’s Living Sustainably: What Intentional Communities Can Teach Us about Democracy, Simplicity, and Nonviolence (University Press of Kentucky, 2017), offers detailed studies of ecovillage life and focuses partly on the LAEV – on how it fares as a small eco-settlement within a rather harsh, mega-urban context. Chapter 8 of the book starts out with a great quote from Lois: “The most important thing is to demonstrate, demonstrate, demonstrate and not preach and not be self-righteous and not be judgmental.” (I can just hear her say it, and it reminds me of her big, warm hugs.) Quite a lesson, indeed, because the daily realities of Los Angeles’ congested traffic, air-conditioned hyper-consumerism and tangible social and economic inequality, as well as the more concealed truths of water and fuel guzzling, do tend to make you want to preach and be self-righteous.

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The Los Angeles Ecovillage: Seeing the tree for the forest…

If any place in southern California embodies the dialectic of the sustainable “tree” that makes the unsustainable “forest” somewhat more bearable and less daunting, this fiercely peaceful little island in the middle of Koreatown is it.

[To be continued.]


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