From Autobahn to Bioregion

[Above: for CRIT, Mumbai may look a mess – but the city enjoys ‘high transactional capacities’]

The big Audi that collected us from Istanbul airport contained nearly as many electronic control units (ECUs) as the new Airbus A380. The Audi, and similar high-end cars, will soon run on 200 million lines or more of software code. As a comparison, the avionics and onboard support systems of Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliner run on fewer than seven million lines.

That makes modern cars highly intelligent, right? Well maybe, and maybe not. Suppose the owner of such a two ton vehicle drives a mile down the Read More »

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Transition Dogville

In Lars von Trier’s 2003 film Dogville (below) there is almost no set. Buildings in the town are represented by a series of white outlines on the floor. Dogville was a to-the-limit exercise in what von Trier calls ‘pure cinema’ – a commitment to use only real locations, and no special effects or background music, when making a film.

I was reminded of Dogville during a this year’s Transition Conference in London. There were talks and workshops, of course, but our main task was Read More »

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How To Manage a Constellation

The map below is of the Baltic Sea. Over the last hundred years its ecosystems have been poisoned almost to death by outputs from a multitude of industries and farming activities in the nine countries that surround it. These deadly flows are shown on the  complicated chart below: Read More »

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Old Growth

[Photography courtesy of  Marc AdamusHere follows the talk I gave last week at the Global Design Forum in London.  

“Last week I went a restored paper mill in a tiny village in the middle of Sweden. I was there (*) to meet a bunch of people who’ve been given a uniquely challenging task: make the bedroom and bathroom products sold globally by a famous home furnishing giant – – sustainable.

When I say that their task is “challenging”, think of it this way.  Read More »

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Bill Moggridge

Devastating news reaches me that Bill Moggridge has died.

Many readers here will know that Bill Moggridge had been director of the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, since 2010, and this was the latest chapter in an illustrious and history-changing career. The Museum has just posted a fine tribute to Bill’s life and work here. Read More »

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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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