Richard Register

Trump Victory and Ecocities

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Richard Register
Written by Richard Register

Why not a title like “Trump Victory and the Implications for Ecocities?” Because this man is a loose cannon barreling about the deck in stormy times and predictions can easily be way off the mark. As San Francisco Chronicle architecture critic John King wrote departing from his usual mainly esthetics based criticism of infrastructure design in our region, we are facing “…a future where all bets are off.” With zero commitment to the truth – “There’s no drought in California” after five years of drought and, “Climate Change is a Chinese hoax designed to confuse Americans” – plus his harsh and crude racist and sexist rants, which, speaking of “flip-flopping” he backs off on then repeats again later, what can be expected beyond the negative unpredictable? If cities in their present form are a major cause for environmental problems, could he begin to see the linkages or understand or care?

Something, other than attempts to predict the future and guess in the usual way what might happen next, is called for. Utilizing trends, assessing the interests of existing power blocks, analyzing the stunningly wrong predictions of the media, etc. are up against trying to figure out what Mr. Trump means or doesn’t really mean when he himself doesn’t seem to know what he’s going to say next. That something other than the usual approach is a look at the problems in “the American character” and what might improve it if we can face what we might see there.

As Alcoholics Anonymous points out, if you don’t admit a problem and face it saying you need help you are not going to get cured. We aren’t going to move forward from this election in any positive manner until we face the darker side of American character. “Facing it” might be the only silver lining we are going to get, a shock doctor opportunity to sit still awhile, take a deep breath and think about it. If we don’t get that far, how are we going to improve things?, Liberal pundits saying hang tight and keep trying notwithstanding, even though that in itself is a good thing. It’s not sufficient. We need to do a little well-informed soul-searching, amateur psychoanalyzing even, psychoanalyzing our own collective self as a country.

Many on both the right and left have forever – for the existence of the country in any case – believed in American exceptionalism. We are very special being a pioneering democracy. We hope and work for the unrepresented and downtrodden around the world, especially for those with the fortitude and imagination to come here (or at least have often claimed this in our welcoming, rather open and innocent way). As inscribed on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, we are the torchlight of hope universal. “Give me your tired, your poor and huddled masses yearning to breath free…” But do we really believe it? “Build a wall against Mexico and make them pay for it…” For example, by the time I was in college I thought democracies were almost by definition peaceful counties – until I learned more about the war-like Greeks of every stripe from despotic Trojans to democratic Athenians and thought twice about the escalating war in Vietnam. I was about then also redefining in my own thoughts about the westward expansion of the United States as a war on the Native Americans, at which time I began saying to myself a democracy is no better than it averages out at election time and produces in active policy, no better than the values of its people, compassionate and reasonable values or as seems to often happen, the opposite.

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Walt Anderson

What’s Walt Anderson got to do with it?

So the best I can figure now and in relation to the environmental issues at the core of the city design work we face in Ecocity Builders is to think about the Trump victory and ecocities together in the same cultural context and see if some good ideas pop up along the way. I don’t pretend to have good predictions, or even reasonable notions for outline of some kind of plan.

And for that and maybe some deeper insights I turn, as I have a few times in my past, to Walt Anderson’s powerful book, A Place of Power – the American episode in human evolution.

This book will seem dated to most people because it is dated, dated 1976, forty whole years back. But what it lacks in regard to up-to-date assessments of policy progress and improved lifestyle habits in numerous ways since 1976, it gains in assessing the more long-term trends in national character. That’s been changing rather more slowly than all those details of policies and influences of leaders coming and going.

This is of course a dangerous business: French are selfish, Germans mechanical, Chinese smoke too much, Indian’s are confused… Small bits of truth pulled out and paraded about, leaving out the rich variety that exists in all societies, can do damage to ideas about whole peoples. Not such a good idea… Unless the exercise is engaged with some real historic depth and sensitivity, seeing deeper collective cultural patterns and motives, sad experiences and proud moments somehow considered and dealt with generously and without blaming anyone for what their parents did and with trying to figure out why people do mean and violent things as well as kind and helpful.

In A Place of Power we find a people arriving in the North American Colonies, then the United States, who were escaping poverty and religious prejudice, but also bringing with them the new nationalism of Europe, very despotic with new countries run by monarchs, arising from consolidation of smaller fragmented political units run by dukes and earls and warlords called knights over the past, then, four hundred or so slowly changing years. In England there were democratic ideas going mainstream going back to the Magna Carta updated by political philosopher John Locke. He said that government power is derived from consent of the governed, if governed mostly to protect private property and those who have it. So the ancestors of Americans were psychologically suspicious of one another when they arrived and determined to set up a new system to protect each individual from the other. That idea of freedom – freedom from harassment – was good for a start but not enough. It was reacting to a negative in a reasonable way but upon arrival had low commitment to any particular place, and though a yearning for a better future, no strong tradition of building well-grounded, lasting, creative institutions. They carried with them, everything else not withstanding, a kind of nostalgia for Europe and the botany and food animals to start over pretty much oblivious of the lessons the Native Americans might have provided in their agriculture and kind of wild animal husbandry: hunting and modification of the landscape with fire to facilitate that hunting.

All that considered, they did a remarkably good job, except for the deadly abusive edge of their religious and racial sense of superiority inflicted upon the Indians and nature itself, not to speak the contradiction of racist slavery in the heart of democracy. In their attitudes and habits there was a tendency for escapism into some unknown land to try again if all failed, not a wholly unrealistic stance considering the recent history of the recently arrived. But the tendency was not that good when people might work with one another on creative projects. That was left to in-group efforts like barn raising among the Amish and a few others, a little friendly help out on the frontier, but that left out almost all that was unfamiliar. The immigrants were escaping the landed elite and so they famously saw the land as something to exploit, as farmers would state casually, “Oh yes, I burned out the soil fertility on three farms in my moves westward. Funny how the soil only lasts three or four years…”

A Place of Power is replete with long thoughtful quotes by other scholars of American history besides Walt Anderson himself. Here’s one from Philip Slater’s The Pursuit of Loneliness, 1970.

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Philip Slater

The avoiding tendency lies at the very root of American Character. This nation was settled and continuously repopulated by people who were not personally successful in confronting the social conditions obtained in their mother country, but fled these conditions in the hope of a better life. This series of choices, reproduced in the westward movement, provided a complex selection process – populating America disproportionately with a certain kind of person… we gained a critically undue proportion of persons who, when faced with a difficult situation, tended to chuck the whole thing and flee to a new environment. Escaping, evading, and avoiding are responses, which lie at the base of much that is peculiarly American.

Robert Frost, whose famous poem “Mending Wall” was required high school reading for me and millions of other students, showed the attitude toward neighbors that made it relatively easy to pull up stakes and move on, the line “good fences make good neighbors” making the point not once but twice in that short exposition. Mend the wall, OK, but what about mending the human relations, staying somewhere and trying to build a better future in a world where we’ve almost or actually have met our geographic and resources limits? That is a condition acknowledged by ecocity theory and the dedication to building something enduring in a word in flux, now with a loose cannon president careening around on the deck making wild-eyed appointments to high offices as I type.

A vote for trump is a statement on a cultural psychological condition

To me the above issues I’ve introduced here describe a set of character traits that would vote for Trump in some desperation, in frustration in the Rust Belt with high joblessness or out on the lonely range where investing in a ranch was turning up nasty winters, droughts and debts to bankers instead of a competitive position in the meat market.

When things get a little bit worse than just a little of that, the fatalistic urge comes up to scrap everything and try anything, which I think describes Americans actually giving Bernie Sanders a pretty tremendous vote for a Jewish Socialist and delivers the whole election to Donald Trump when the former is such a bugaboo, especially the socialist part augmented by the messenger/candidate being Jewish. The later is part of a still strong racist strain in America which most of us try to deny. Ultimately there was the impulse of some desperation: gotta try something besides the establishment that gave us deregulation and dominance of the biggest CEOs, bankers and stock traders and a society that, despite a small amount of restructuring after the 2007-2008 financial crisis, put most of the architects of deregulation and the collapse right back in the driver’s seat. And now eight years later, the division between the very small number of the super rich and the average Joe and Josephine who produce a useful product as compared with a paper profit, makes for this attitude with deep grounding in our national psyche: “We have to try something really different, maybe even scrap it all and step into totally new and unknown territory.” That would be like moving westward, ever westward in American history starting with going west over the dangerous Atlantic from Europe.

At the extreme of this “chuck it all” was an attitude, even a strategy suggested by the Black Panther Party and some of the more adamant anti-war folks toward the end of the 1960s: “Vote for the worst guy for peace and understanding, Richard Nixon. Then things will be polarized and we will wake up to realize things have gotten bad enough that change is required.” In one of my more interesting conversations with Senator Alan Cranston at the time – his two sons were friends of mine – Alan warned me that voting to exacerbate a situation to prove how bad it was, was a very dangerous strategy. Don’t encourage anyone to try it. Alan was a journalist covering Hitler’s rise to power in Germany in the 1930s and noted that large numbers of people supported him saying no one would actually let him get away with the sort of things he was talking about. But, Alan said, actual political power when attained tends to magnify itself, not cancel itself out.

In the case of Trump’s victory, “Maybe even a racist, sexist with a truly un-presidential foul mouth, if he might [in some vague magical way] relieve us of the unconscionable division of the wealthiest from the mass number of everybody else would be a good thing.” Free us of this entrenched elite, many seemed to be saying. It would be worth a try. After all, this is a condition that’s not supposed to happen in a democracy. That seems to me a version of what Cranston – “give them enough rope to hang themselves” – urged against. Whether this component of the election was enough to push Trump over the top, who knows?

The place of ecocities in A Place of Power

Walt Anderson’s book is largely a collection of insightful and usually fairly long quotes that place the American character in the context of what’s going on in the environment and even seen in the long term, meaning in the evolution of both culture and nature. Cultural perspectives in A Place of Power end up exploiting – over exploiting – nature to the point of changing the species list and all interrelations of species, their genetics and human impact on the very trajectory of evolution, including interrelations changing the very lithosphere we walk on, the hydrosphere we drink, the atmosphere we breath and the climate that bathes our skin and freezes or burns us. In this book Anderson preceded and lit the way for books like A forest Journey – the role of wood in the development of civilization by John Perlin, 1989; The Conquest of Paradise – Christopher Columbus and the columbian legacy by Kirkpatrick Sale, 1990; 1493 – uncovering the new world Columbus created by Charles Mann, 2011 and other books looking at the biological and ecological transformations created by the flood of people, animals, plants and diseases traded in what is sometimes called “the Columbian exchange,” meaning the shipment back and forth across the seas of the living matter of the planets biosphere, changing the life patterns everywhere in the days of European colonial expansion and intentional exploitation, importing useful animals and plants, pests and weeds, cholera and smallpox. Going the other way was the Aztec’s and Inca’s gold, Hungary’s paprika, the Irish potato, the Indian’s corn, tobacco and syphilis, and so on. What Walt Anderson, a friend of mine since the mid 1960s when we both lived in Venice, California, presented in an even much more emphasized way, was that the human cultural/economic impacts have been and continue to be enormous, apocalyptic even, from the evolutionary point of view, which brings us to books like The Sixth Extinction – an unnatural history by Elizabeth Kolbert, 2012.

Walt’s book is unique for its time and still rare in ours, in carefully tracing the connections between American early influences, psychology – he was long time President of the Association for Humanist Psychology – and not just ecology, but evolution in the saga of American history. My own thought on themes in his book these days is that ecology and evolution is exactly the same thing seen in two radically different time frames. Ecology we can see working and learn from in satisfying detail over only one to a few centuries. Watching our fellow life forms, and ourselves for that matter, in time spans of a hundred or a few hundred years as they and we relate to one another and the non-living environment of minerals, climate, temperature regime and so on gives us the science of ecology. Evolution we see most clearly in periods of time in the tens of thousands to hundreds of millions of years.

They are the same thing: the universe changing – and changing in particular directions that French Jesuit paleontologist in China, Teilhard de Chardin, recognized as phenomena in the universe moving from the large scale and simple – great clouds of hydrogen gas in the early millennia – toward collections of matter in ever more compacted (small spaces) and in ever more complex arrangement such as stars and planets, then giving rise to life, then consciousness – in us.

Ecology can teach us how to design buildings in passive solar organic attached greenhouse heating and cooling ways, and whole cities in relation to sun angles, local conditions and larger global realities. Such urban design impacts we might notice, when dependent on cars, are on a scale large enough to change climate, heat the planet and – stupendously and apocalyptically enough, fantastic as it sounds – raise the seas. Just little old us! The evolutionary lesson is that the city scattering over vast areas of single uses is contrary to the evolutionary patterns that have been frugal, well articulated, miniaturized and complex – like our own bodies. That ecology and evolution are the same thing, both driven by chemical and radiological slowly compounding genetic changes through mutations in the life-scale times of evolution, tells us not only that we could build far healthier cities for people in design basics rather than for cars, but also gives us an opening to convincing more people of the even larger laws of evolution we should

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Teilhard de Chardin

be paying attention to. Why I am interested in the sameness of ecology and evolution is also because people by the hundreds of millions have become much

better educated about ecology but much more reluctant to consider what evolution might teach us. If they are the same thing then evolution should, as it were, come in on the coattails of ecology to great and enlarged benefit to society.

Does any of this seem like it would go anywhere in Trump’s mind? Probably not. But Walt Anderson sees the roots in good and bad, or better stated healthy and damaging human behavior in the historic and psychological context as rooted in turn in evolution and thus making these connections could help us build, and in many ways literally, a healthier society much more at peace with nature.

Take for example this, that on his first page there is a long running quote coming even before the title page and the page with copyright. It is from Teilhard de Chardin in his book The Phenomenon of Man. This is it:

Blind indeed are those who do not see the sweep of a movement whose orbit infinitely transcends the natural sciences and has successfully invaded and conquered the surrounding territory – chemistry, physics, sociology and even mathematics and the history of religions. One after the other all the fields of human knowledge have been shaken and carried away by the same underwater current in the direction of the study of some development. Is evolution a theory, a system or a hypothesis? It is much more. It is a general condition to which all theories, all systems must bow and which they must satisfy henceforward if they are to be thinkable and true. Evolution is a light illuminating all facts, a curve that all lines must follow.

Conclusion?

I believe we can learn much from attempting to face up to the mind set of millions of Americans that can be semi-legitimately called something of an “American character.” Understanding its roots and accepting what we have hopefully and consciously learned about making a creative peace to compliment the characteristic of the universe constantly reinventing new stuff and recreating itself in its evolution can give us better bearings on how to improve none other than ourselves. Anything less than this is likely to not help us move forward in this very difficult territory we have just entered.

Bonus

As something of a bonus here I’m going to add some of the remarkable illustrations that grace Walt Anderson’s book, A Place of Power – the American episode in human evolution. These range from the poignant to the surrealistic and help make the book a real adventure in intellectual and artistic discovery. I’ll include also the captions Anderson provides.

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The cover, no caption

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Bureaucracies have a way of holding on to power once delegated, and bodies of experts often develop languages of their own, systems of symbolic communication that are not likely to be understood (and not meant to be understood) by the generalist.

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Americans were developing a relationship to the land different from that of many other cultures. Now for most of the people who had good fortune to acquire title to a piece of land, it was primarily a commodity, an investment: buying and selling, moving from place to place created an important facet of the American DSP. [DSP stands for Dominant Social Paradigm, in other words, core values and ingrained assumptions behind actual ways of thinking and living, the largest of societal patterns.]

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The opening up of the far west opened up another market for cheap labor and another flow of immigration: Chinese coolies were imported by the thousands. They built the railroads, grew fruits and vegetables, and worked as cooks and servants in San Francisco and the mining towns.

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It was assumed that immigrants would improve their lot by becoming Americans and that the land, too, was being called to a higher mission by becoming part of the United States.

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The kind of technological change we have been undergoing in the past few decades has been rapid and spectacular. But we should not assume it has produced an across-the-board improvement in the human condition.

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Thirteen million immigrants had been added to the American population; they and their children were a majority in most of the urban North, and a discontented one. They lived in a society that extolled consumerism, but their access to wealth was limited.

 

 

About the author

Richard Register

Richard Register

Richard Register is an eco-pioneer and founder of Ecocity Builders. He lectures and consults internationally and has authored several books of illustrations and ecocity design principles. Get his latest book, World Rescue – an Economics Built on What We Build online or directly from the author by emailing ecocity (at) igc (dot) org.

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