Megacities after the meltdown

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The received wisdom for a decade has been that the world will continue to urbanise, and that power and money will continue to congregate in a handful of megacity regions. The Megacities Congress in November begins to question these once-comfortable certainties. Well I will, anyway: I’m speaking on Friday 28th. The evening before (Thursday 27th) there’s a lecture by Adriaan Geuze on the Randstad, followed by a discussion that includes Ed Soja (et moi).

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City Eco Lab: on site and building…

…only we’re pouring earth not concrete See you in our little shed!

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When red is green and up is down

George Monbiot, in today’s Guardian, also links the financial crisis and the ecological crisis.”The financial crisis shows what happens when we try to make the facts fit our desires”, writes Monbiot. “The two crises have the same cause. In both cases, those who exploit the resource have demanded impossible rates of return and invoked debts that can never be repaid. In both cases we denied the likely consequences.The rules are the same in both cases. Ecology is the stock from which all wealth grows (but) if you extract resources at a rate beyond the level of replenishment, your stock will collapse”. Monbiot concludes, “Now we must learn to live in the real word.”
This is a good cue for me to head back to St Etienne head back to St Etienne for the coming days. I’m more convinced than ever that working at the level of the region – as we are doing there – is a better use of one’s life energies (which are also finite) than making demands of national politicians that they are in no position to meet – nor even, for the most part, to understand. As Jonathon Porritt puts it in his new book Globalism and Regionalism at least two of the basic foundations of civilised life – energy, and food – are readily and satisfyingly available at a regional level. “A watchword of sustainable economics is self-reliance. This entails combining judicious and necessary trade with other countries with an unapologetic emphasis on each country maintaining security of supply in terms of energy, food, and even manufacturing”.

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Measuring what matters

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Totally lost amongst the financial news last week was discussion of a new report on The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (Teeb).
According to this EU-commissioned study, the global economy is losing more money from the disappearance of forests than through the current banking crisis. The report puts the annual cost of forest loss at between $2 trillion and $5 trillion.
The figure comes from adding the value of the various services that forests perform, such as providing clean water and absorbing carbon dioxide.
According to Pavan Sukhdev, lead author of the report, “whereas Wall Street by various calculations has to date lost, within the financial sector, $1-$1.5 trillion, the reality is that at today’s rate we are losing natural capital at least between $2-$5 trillion every year.”
Strictly speaking, Mr Sukhdev, we are not “losing” natural capital, we are consuming it. And the superhuman efforts of politicians these days are all fixing the system so that we can carry on consuming a lot more.
As Illargiputs it today, “the intention of all these daily federal interventions is to keep the credit spigots open so Americans can go even deeper into debt to buy more stuff they can’t actually afford”. And he goes on to quote Barney Frank, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee: “We have to prop up consumption.”
Key to understanding Sukhdev’s conclusions is that as forests decline, nature stops providing services which it used to provide essentially for free. So the human economy either has to provide them instead, perhaps through building reservoirs, building facilities to sequester carbon dioxide, or farming foods that were once naturally available.
Or we have to do without them; either way, there is a financial cost.
So I have a proposal. Let’s pass a law compelling anyone in possession of an information screen describing the financial markets to split the screen, make the money chart half the size, and place it beside a real-time feed from a site opf ecosystem degradation.

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Toxic sludge machine

I was critical last week of commentators who describe the financial crisis as “psychological”.
Those who blame a “lack of transparency” are on stronger ground – although ignorance of the facts or the law is not a valid excuse in other domains of life.
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The process chart above describes something called a Financial Products Markup Language which is said (on its website) to be “the business information exchange standard for electronic dealing and processing of financial derivatives instruments”. The idea is to “streamline the process supporting trading activities in the financial derivatives domain”.
The chart looks neat and orderly – hygienic, even, with all that blue – but reflect a moment: The system has been programmed for deranged individuals who, as we now know, believe that exponential growth to eternity is a right and proper basis for the design of the world’s financial system.
GIGO – or Garbage In, Garbage Out – is a phrase used by computer programmers to remind laypeople that computers “will unquestioningly process the most nonsensical of input data and spew out mountains of erroneous information in a short time”.
Where we’re at now is that systems designed to “streamline” the market have been spewing out financial derivatives which, insofar as anyone can count them, now amount to eight hundred times global GDP.
This mass of red stuff (the red wedge on the inverted pyramid above, also known in financial circles as “toxic sludge”) has now started to leak out of the balloon. And that’s why this crisis is not psychological.
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For Dan Roberts in The Telegraph “the real mystery is how the negative feedback loop in the financial markets became so devastating. How could this domino effect happen so quickly? How could we lose control of something we designed to serve us?”.
It’s not a mystery. Think back to Three Mile island . (The photo above is of its mis-named control room.) During that calamity, within a few seconds after the physical accident at the nuclear reactor began, more than a hundred warning lights were flashing in the control room.
“I would have liked to have thrown away the alarm panel,” one of the duty operators, Craig Faust, said later. “It wasn’t giving us any useful information.” Water pumps, the turbine and the reactor had all unexpectedly shut down. But none of the blinking lights told the operators what they needed to know.
Or wanted to know.
In today’s financial discontinuity, the complexity of the information available (think of all those screens) has been compounded by two further factors: a lot of the trading is driven by powerful semi-automated systems ; and a lot of people clearly have not wanted to know what the screens were telling them.

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Redemption

I’m sorry, but if I hear one more “expert” on the box describe the financial crisis as “psychological” I’m going to barf. I also heard a French commentator today blame “the redemption factor” – which sounds biblical, but apparently refers to the price being put on that huge red chunk of the pyramid (see story above) which seems to represent eight hundred times global GDP.
Norrie C at The Guardian explains that what’s unwinding is “the mathematically flawed system of debt-based, fiat, Fractional Reserve Banking which is predicated on indefinite exponential growth. That is growth in debt, population, industrial activity, consumption of energy, consumption of raw materials, production of waste, production of pollution, destruction of the biosphere”.
Continuous, relentless exponential growth of the above list is simply not possible indefinitely – and the end of indefinitely is what seems to be happening now.
The fiscal model is fatally flawed, Norrie explains, because “you need a relentless, geometric increase in debt for there to be enough money in the money supply to pay back all the capital and interest when only the capital was ever created. The debt-based Fractional Reserve Banking system is killing itself, our savings and our planet”.
This is a disgrace, and somebody should do something about it.
But personally I’ve made a killing out of the crisis this week. On Monday, in Brighton, Andre Viljoen gave me my first Lewes Pound:
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This new complementary currency is designed to encourage demand for local goods and services and thereby to help build resilience to the rising costs of energy, transport and food.
It’s intended to be used alongside pounds Sterling – but I couldn’t help noticing that LPs are selling at a healthy premium on eBay: pound@ebay.png
In other words, my global holdings in complementary currencies (one Lewes Pound) have gone up fourteen times in a single week.
I’ve only got one Lewes Pound, and I’m hanging on to it. Or will someone out there will make me a good offer? What shall we say: a kilo of gold for it?

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The rain in Spain stays mainly in the Hog

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Harvesting rainwater is key for any town or city determined to use its water sustainably. Rainwater HOG is a rain rescue and storage tank designed as a water-filled building block. It was conceived and developed by an Australian architect, Sally Dominguez, who had been designing drought-ready buildings but was frustrated by a lack of options for domestic scale urban rainwater catchment. HOG’s flat walls, and use of through-holes as bracing, allow water to flow in any direction. This enables HOG to store water horizontally and vertically. Because HOG modules are deliberately slim and compact, they are easy to retrofit into the tightest spaces. As Dominguez explains,”the problem with a drought is that when it rains, it often gathers in the wrong areas for it to be of use. As an architect I wanted to fit in rainwater storage without giving up valuable real estate”. The product has taken off so fast in California that Dominguez has moved her family and the business to Marin County. Hog is on display at the Autodesk Design Gallery in San Francisco as one of the winners of the Spark design awards.
I can’t judge whether the system can be used as it stands in a European context, but the potential market in London must be 35 million units on its own. It never rains but it shines, at least for this designer.

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Feeling peaky

I have this image of the 19-strong Emergency Economy Committee sitting down in Number 10 Downing Street in London (as they did yesterday, for the first time) to discuss the money crisis. The economy war-room is lined with screens on which red graphs plunge downwards. The Prime Minister calls the meeting to order: “Any suggestions?” Before any of the 19 hand-picked experts, the finest financial minds in the land, can speak, a functionary bursts into the room bearing a clipboard. “Prime Minister, we really must deal with the peak oil crisis, right now”. The Prime Minister opens his mouth to reply, but before he can speak another functionary comes in waving another print-out: “Peak phosphorous, peak phosphorous, it’s going to run out and there’ll be no bread and we’re all going to starve” the functionary babbles. At this point the Prime MInister stands up and stamps his foot: “I don’t want to hear any more bad news. Someone give me some good news”. At this point a small nerdy guy comes in and says, “Prime Minister, we really need you to co-ordinate emergency international action on the peak indium crisis”. “Where the hell is Indium” cries Brown. “It’s not a place, Prime Minister, it’s a rare metal” stammers the nerd.”It’s essential to the production of liquid displays but it’s going to run out and when that happens the world will run out of computer displays”. “You mean, like the displays in this room?” asks Brown. “I’m afraid so, yes, Prime Minister”. “Excellent” cries Brown, and claps the nerd on the back. “I’m appointing you Minister for Clear Thinking. “I want you to buy up all the indium in the world and pour it down that hole where we keep all the nuclear waste”.

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Beyond the building: behind the website

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This is what it looked like when three of the best critics in the Netherlands set out to write an online book in five days at the Venice Architecture Biennial (which was two weeks ago),
Did I say concentrated?
Inspired by the recent burning-down of the Faculty of Architecture in Delft, the Dutch Pavilion (commissioned from Stealth by Ole Bouman) was turned into a project called ARCHIPHOENIX – a week long debate on “the capacities and capabilities of architecture – beyond building”. My own contribution, a talk on the theme
“What would radical ecology imply for architecture? is online: click on “keynote speaker marathon: Beyond the sustainable”.

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