Uniting polarities: could it be that cities are not evil?

At Meadowcreek, it’s easy to begin to feel that “great city” is an oxymoron.  That no city is great; all are cancers.  The only question is whether “great city” is a better oxymoron than military intelligence or business ethics or lead from behind, or Irregular pattern.

Cities do bring folks together to share ideas and create.  But today’s mega-cities are way bigger than needed to do that.  Much smaller cities do it better.  One question is how few resilient people are needed to maximize creativity.  150 might do very nicely as Dunbar has shown.

More interesting, though, is exploring the opposition of concepts such as “city versus nature”, or “urban versus rural.” Why do our minds  construct worlds like that?  When we create dichotomies such as rural/urban or city/nature we make a number of assumptions which can undermine ecological resilience.

Some believe in protecting ecological systems from destruction by man. Implementation of this belief can mean protecting areas from encroachment by man whether agriculture, forestry or cities.  Man has always been a part of ecosystems, modifying them gradually more and more.  Though we are modifying them way too much nowadays, there is no way to really take man out of the equation.  Even if you make like Hunger Games and build high walls to separate people from wild animals, you are creating an artificial world.

This belief in protecting nature  from any influence from man also implies that some configuration of species is optimal.  If treasured species were being destroyed, of course people intervene to stop that.  Deer may be overpopulated, but suburban ladies can’t stand the idea of some being shot.  Resilient ecosystems have solutions to overpopulation.  The best solution are the predators.  Disease can do it too.  The only predator of man is man. murders in our inner cities could indicate that a mechanism to control overpopulation is evolving.  But then why do huge cities with Asian and .northern European populations have inner cities which are calm, peaceful?

Nature is not a closed, predictable system. If we try to maintain a specific optimization, future potential for novelty and change are destroyed.  In fact, the adaptive potential of the system is undermined.  Yet we persist in maintaining the man and nature dichotomy.

There is something in our psyche which polarizes, takes extremes and picks fights between the two.

Sustainability and resilience were pitted against each other by both the New York Times and the British paper, The Guardian, when resilience first hit the popular consciousness a couple of years ago.  Why?  Sell papers, some would say.  So they pit Republican against Democrat, Muslim against Christian.

But it happens in science, too.  The nature/nurture debate cyclically rears its head, when neither genetics or environment solely determine behavior.  Wave vs. particle was a fierce debate in the theory of light until we realized it was neither.  It was just light, neither particle nor wave, it just is what it is.

Some say when you have two opposing groups, you must find middle ground, a compromise.  Not in science.  When there are two opposing theories in science truth is not somewhere in between.  Sometimes one of the theories amasses so much evidence that the other is abandoned.  Few believe in ether or phlogiston today. More often a new theory subsumes the data from both older theories.

It’s fun to work with a group when they start to look at themselves and their beliefs and suddenly realize that the truth is not in either opposing position, nor is it in a compromise.  Compromise without resolving the polarity is either a means of delaying the inevitable confrontation or a means of one group co-opting another.

We had one great example recently visiting the USA.  The Pope seems like one good compromiser when you read his environmental encyclical Laudato Si.  He is adept, like all good politicians, at finding ways to say what each group wants to hear. He shows no knowledge of ecological resilience.

The value of great compromisers like the Pope to the political process is that they understand both poles in the debate.  The best go beyond compromise to find basic underlying common assumptions and build new structures on these commonalities.  In the early 90s in Kentucky, groundwater pollution was extremely contentious.  Regulators contended from voluminous data that agriculture is the primary polluter of groundwater today.  So, they decided farmers should all have to sink wells to collect data and prove they are not polluting.

Farmers, especially those influenced by Kentucky Farm Bureau, reacted vociferously.  They pointed out the cost of such regulation would run most smaller farms out of business.  Another organization, Community Farm Alliance, back then combined a love of the environment with a love of farming.  So we could be seen is midway between the two poles, if you think dichotomously.

We were able to establish common ground between the polarized groups.  The more basic unifying assumption we established was two-fold.  Both wanted to see lots of small farms and both wanted a clean environment.  Once this foundation was established, all of us could go on to build a nationally renowned process for protecting groundwater.

If well-meaning people are on both sides, then both sides are wrong and the truth contains elements of both.  They don’t form a continuum where truth is in the middle, but a new construct based on elements within each of the opposing viewpoints. (We’ll might discuss the sad fools who think there is no “truth” in a coming essay about gravity.)

Sometimes both sides don’t include well-meaning people, or the well-meaning people are just pawns of the greedy and selfish.  At Meadowcreek we have had problems from outsiders who would like to acquire Meadowcreek’s property and develop it.  I’ve even heard that some even brag that someday they will own Meadowcreek.

These greedy, acquisitive, selfish people can be seen as the enemy of all that is good.  They are toxic.  It’s hard to see how people think they should be able to own any property they want and treat it exactly as they like.  The fun in Nature is the diversity, the chaos, the change.  Look at farms belonging to the greedy and selfish.  They will always be depleted with few signs of resilience.

Not that there is not value in increasing your productive assets.  All resilient systems do that.  Just be ready for the omega phase.  It will come.  And all those assets will be released to enable the alpha phase–reorganization–to begin.

Whoever poached the deer whose blood I saw smeared over 20 yards from across the field to the county road, we have a lady here who likes the deer and is a good shot.  Might be time for the omega phase for a few more systems.


You might like this article on dichotomies and ecological resilience from some Swedes: H. Erixon , S. Borgström & E. Andersson (2013) Challenging dichotomies – exploring resilience as an integrative and operative conceptual framework for large-scale urban green structures, Planning Theory & Practice, 14:3, 349-372, DOI: 10.1080/14649357.2013.813960


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