Top Down Nature

A huge urban master plan in southen France gets serious about nature as a project. In Bordeaux 55,000 (above) the city of Bordeaux (CUB) has invited five multidisciplinary teams to develop projects, during a a six month “competitive dialogue”, that will explore ‘how best to transform 55,000 hectares (136,000 acres) into natural areas’. Read More »

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What Is, Or Is Not, A ‘Green Job’ ?


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Why Bill Gates Needs To Listen To More Gamelan Music

Ritual as Feedback in Bali 

The unique social and ecological nature of regional watersheds was the focus of a mesmerising presentation by Stephen Lansing at last month’s poptech conference in Iceland. His key point: Bali’s subak water management system is a “coupled social-ecological system”.

Balinese farmers have been growing rice in terraces since at least the eleventh century. Because the island’s volcanic rock is rich in mineral nutrients, water running off mountains fills the rice paddies to create a kind of aquarium.This system has enabled farmers to grow two crops of rice a year year for centuries. They do this using a unique form of cooperative agriculture that enables farming to flourish despite water scarcity and the constant threat of disease and pests.

Rice planting and water allocation is coordinated by subaks; these bring together all of the farmers who share water from a single source – such as a spring, or an irrigation canal. The subaks adjust cropping patterns cooperatively in order to achieve fallow periods over sufficiently large areas to minimize dispersal of pests.

Irrigation, in this context, is not just a matter of delivering water to a plant’s roots. The rice terraces are hydrologically connected to each other, so the farmers have had to solve a complex coordination problem: who gets to use how much water, when, and how. A complex, ‘pulsed’ artificial ecosystem has evolved over generations in which the allocation of water is adjudicated by a priest in a water temple. The arrangement is a dynamic one; cooperation is continuous among hundreds of farmers whose relationships span entire watersheds.

“There is a complex adaptive systems explanation for water temples” Lansing explains, “but also a complex cultural one”. (Lansing has been studying irrigated rice agriculture in Bali for 40 years, but is also is associated with the Santa Fe Institute where his interests include ‘ecological anthropology’).”The temples are more than just a kind of mathematical device”, he explains; “a great deal of attention is devoted to symbolic ritual activities such as food offerings, prayers to deities, and elaborate pilgrimages.

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The Other Green Economy

[Photo taken by the author at Instituto Inhotim, Brazil].

People the world over are divided between radically different conceptions of their future: resource-intensive production on the one side, versus regenerative land-based enterprises, and mosaics of micro-enterprises, on the other.

Our dilemma is that although industrial and agribusiness development breeds its own fear and insecurity – most of it justified – the alternatives on offer are not reassuring; they can seem too small, and too marginal, as the basis of a secure future.

The growing hype about a Green Economy exemplifies this dilemma. On offer is a ‘green’ switch to renewable biomass energy as an alternative to the thermo-industrial economy. The trouble with this charming vision is that its implementation involves the biggest earth grab in 500 years – in the words of one research group “a red-hot resource grab on the lands, livelihoods, knowledge and resources of the global South, where 86% of all biomass is located“.

The displacement of farmers and indigenous peoples means the  loss of  local and traditional knowledge, too. In practice, biomass energy production Read More »

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Love vs Power In Iceland

For some Icelanders, in a country whose inhabitants have survived 1,100 winters without central heating, the environmental costs of aluminium smelting are worth paying if the alternative is a return to a life in grass-roofed huts.

To many, that choice does not feel far-fetched. Andri Snær Magnason’s grandfather, for example, worked continuously on the land and sea in order to survive. As the author of Dreamland recalls, “my family caught fish, burned driftwood, milked cows, and herded sheep. Food was life for twenty to thirty people in a house of 1,400 square feet. Everything edible was cut and dried: One sheep represented a month and a bit of human survival next winter. That was their reality”.

The vitality of that living memory is one reason debate about Iceland’s economic future  seems to have been limited to a stark choice: sell the country, body and soul, to global energy and extractive interests – or go back to those huts.

The search for a third way was one underlying theme at last week’s Poptech in Reykjavik on the theme “Toward Resilience”.  My invitation (from Andrew Zolli) to take part afforded a welcome opportunity to re-connect with a country confronted by an agonising choice: “eaten-alive-or-growing-to-live?”. Read More »

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The Hidden Costs of Tiger Water

This jequitiba tree in Brazil moves hundreds of gallons of water up into its canopy every day. It does so without pumps, without electricity, and without recourse to the concrete reservoirs and sewage treatment plants on which most modern cities depend.

The jequitiba is a joyous marvel to behold, of course – but it would also be an practical inspiration to the world’s designers and city builders, faced with imminent energy descent, if only we were minded to notice.

But we’re not. As with energy, although threats to the security of water supply command a lot of attention, we’ve lost touch with the realities of where it comes from, and how we use it. By the year 2050, as a consequence of this hydro-myopia, as many as two-thirds of the world population will be living in areas subject to water stress.

Here is a thought experiment to demonstrate how alienated we’ve become from water. Imagine emptying 500 litre bottles of water into a huge pot and carrying it 50 miles – every day of the year. Read More »

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Why White Is Wicked

[Photograph by Tim Mitchell]

You probably need to be naked to read this book with a clear conscience. This reader, for one, felt like stripping off as the revelations piled up:
– it took 700 gallons of fresh water to make my cotton t-shirt;
– it’s partly down to me that 85% of the Aral Sea In Uzbekistan has disappeared because its water was used to grow cotton in the desert;
– a quarter of all the insecticides in the world are used on cotton crops;
– buckets of hazardous sludge are generated during the coating process of the metal buttons on my jeans;
– white is energy-intensive because of all the bleaching;
– being clean, and wearing white to prove it, has weakened my immune system;
– I‘ll use six times more energy washing my favourite shirt than was needed to make it;
– nearly all the textiles in my life will end up in landfill – garments, household textiles, carpets, the lot. Read More »

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It’s (Still) Not Just The Bags


[I’m re-publishing this story to celebrate the fact that I just got to Sao Paulo, met Adelia Borges, and discovered that the first print-run of her book has sold out in just a couple of months. Adelia explained that one of the organisations doing great work here in Brazil, in support the development of indigenous craft enterprises, is Sebrae – at whose place in Belo Horizonte I’m giving a talk this coming Wednesday. My topic will be: “Food and Fibre During The Coming Energy Transition” – or something along those lines]. Read More »

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How to game the gift economy

In pre-market-based societies, goods and services were distributed on the basis of gift-giving and reciprocity. The most effective strategy for security, in an age without bank accounts and insurance policies, was to develop a reputation for generosity and sharing. This is a heart-warming story – so shall we put it to the test?

Here follows a case study in how the gift economy works. All of the following content, which has always been available here free, will remain so:

872 blog posts and essays;
23 essays on food systems and design;
20 to-do lists and handouts;
13 writers recommended for their insights on on design and energy;
83 radical alternatives to university and design school;
19 off-the-wall action plans for replacing education with something feral;
34 more meaningful things to do in your city than make it “smart”;
24 provocations on the future of journeying and mobility;
100 books (selected from thousands) in our fabled Reading List;
23 texts that ask, “what’s so great about social innovation?”;
42 stories about art, communication and embodied perception;
9 Doors of Perception conferences (especially transcripts and reports);
11 City Eco Labs and xskools (i.e. the learnings therefrom)

The way the gift economy works is simple: if any of this content proves valuable to you, please consider making a donation. If your monthly donation totals more than the cost of a coffee and muffin in Starbucks – or one per cent of the cost per year of your college education – then go directly to Gift Economy Heaven.


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