Richard Register

Peace through Ecocities

Several of us, after a day of planning for the 11th International Ecocity Conference coming up in Abu Dhabi, headed out to dinner to eat, converse, think about the day and just plain relax. We were in Barcelona at the time and the time was their exciting evening because they are crazy for football, soccer to Americans. The city was festooned with the colors of the team, big wide red and blue stripes hanging from windows, on poles, and as enormous flags suspended from opposite high buildings stretched over quite a few of the streets. Along our way from workshop to dinner we walked under their gentle billowing and fluttering in the light breeze. It was the evening of the big game.

At the dinner table casual conversation shifted back and forth from the strictly fun and informal, “How’s with your family?” and so on, to random thoughts about our up-coming conference, thoughts easily flowing about ecocities. I was talking with the young Assistant Professor of Sustainable Design at the American University of Cairo. We’d all like to see some real ecocity projects come to fruition. Some projects, like and experimental small town Masdar in Abu Dhabi, got some things very right but missed on other points too. Pretty much out of nowhere, or rather from earlier hopeful musings, Khaled Tarabieh, the sustainable design guy, said he was hopeful ecocity projects might take people’s minds off the wars in the Middle East and be a real force for peace. The idea: siphon off some of the destructive badly directed energy and shift said energy and personal and cultural commitment to something creative instead, something really creative, a big project like building ecocities, or even just a couple of them to get the idea to catch on, really complete ecocities. If we could only get a really good one going with participation from lots of divergent groups…. The thought floated about. I’d had some similar thoughts before like that, but now we had a conversation. There is so much wasted, distorted energy, disagreements turning into conflicts and conflicts into wars. Foreign states invading for oil and political economic “dominance,” religious fundamentalists working out ideas rooted in horribly violent times more than a thousand years ago blowing each other up. What if we could all just ease off a bit and begin working on something of benefit to all of us, like building ecocities?

I thought back on a slogan we had at the First International Ecocity Conference in 1990: “Peace on Earth, peace with Earth.” Maybe one species of peace – with the Earth by way of building our cities to harmonize with normal ecology and evolution – would be contagious to another variety of peace – peace between people.

I thought back even farther to the days of the Vietnam War, the war the Vietnamese called the American War, and my own activities with an initiative I’d started and pursued for about six years called No War Toys. The idea was to create a conversation about the origins of the acceptance of war, as early in an individual’s lifetime as in the child’s life in the informal setting of the everyday home – when fathers give their sons toys to pretend killing each other for heroic good clean fun. Was that an early step toward psychological acceptance of war? Why not be honest and play Veterans’ Hospital instead?

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Khaled Tarabieh at dinner in Barcelona.

One of the activities we No War Toys young ones undertook at the time was to picket toy stores with lots of toy mayhem, seeking and getting media attention for the issue. Another one was to cook up nice exuberant play for kids like building macho tree houses – get real and creative about a little risk and danger while developing some construction skills – and giant sandcastles on beaches. That last idea got picked up from Venice Beach, California where I was living at the time to Honolulu, Vancouver, San Diego, Miami and even some place out on Long Island. We’d announce in the “underground press” of the day that we were inviting everyone to the beach to build a big No War Toys sandcastle – bring shovels, plastic buckets, No War Toys happy-face flags, Earth flags, sun, moon and flower banners, pinwheels, kites… Very cooperative: first we’d make an enormous pile of sand near the waterline with the sea. That’s what the shovels were for. Then we’d have a bucket brigade relaying full buckets of water to throw on the sand pile. After about fifteen minutes of wetting the sand down to fashion

an excellent building medium – dry sand doesn’t work well at all – construction would commence and fantastic things emerged: village buildings, sculptures, seashell tiled streets and rooftops, tunnels, walls, steps, abstract forms, big sand frogs and snakes and other animals… It was like an undiscovered folk art form suddenly materialized and discovered once a month, beach by beach and excellent propaganda for No War Toys.

At one of our monthly sand castle events in Venice, an obnoxious little boy of nine or ten turned up determined to kick everyone’s work to smithereens. He’d hover around on the edges, dart in and knock something over – a wall, a house, a pinwheel, a nice flower someone had stuffed into the sand like a bright colored bush by a cute little archway. He’d laugh, run away and a few minutes later reappear and look for the next target of his destructive little kicks. Literally kicks. About the third or fourth time I saw it coming and restrained the little jerk with a few sharp words. “Why do that? Why don’t we try building something? Come on, it’s easy. Pretty fun too.” He shrugged in a kind of tough-guy way, looked around and realized the other kids did seem to be having fun. I’m not saying this will work with everyone but when he did build a few things he went on to some more interesting products of his imagination and became the police on duty. “Hey – don’t wreck that!” He shooed away the random dogs too, who tend to obliviously walk all over the children’s work like the lumps of sand they are, missing the meaning in the often wonderful forms.

Was a big deal in psychology circles at the time

In the 1960s there was a psychological study popular among educators. It was called the Robber’s Cave Experiment because it took place at a summer camp for adolescent boys called Robber’s Cave Camp. That was in Oklahoma in 1954. The lead experimenter was Mazafer Sherif a Turkish American researcher. Working with the camp directors, with parents permission, he commandeered 24 young students during their summer vacation. They were unaware someone was conducting a study. He divided the youg campers into two groups of 12 each and told them the school had a kind of friendly competition going on, and so there would be two teams throughout the time at camp, team spirit and all – pick a name for your team. One picked the Eagles and the others were the Rattlers. The two teams lived in separate facilities, ate at separate tables in the dinning room, had plenty of time to get to know one another within their group, taking part in leisure conversations, games, small work parties, little trips here and there and so on. But they had almost no occasion to get together with the “competition,” the other team.

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Mazafer Sherif

After a time to really settle in, the experimenters tried a few social occasions with the boys from both groups at once. But these served mainly as occasions that degenerated into name-calling and arguments, some getting quite heated. Other situations were set up to create team spirit within the groups and a few others arranged for joint activities with the then clearly competing little clan. Some of the set up attempts at socializing across lines, Eagles with Rattlers, resulted in fights that had to be cooled down by the adults before they went too far.

But one thing done together turned out quite differently. Both groups set out for some joint destination that included a nice lunch coming up, one truck for each group. They piled in and took off. But a couple miles from the destination one of the trucks had faux engine trouble. Oooops. Everyone had to work together pushing the disabled truck, and it wasn’t easy. The experimenters had carefully selected some nice difficult slopes that would require both teams working together to actually make progress with the problem truck. They struggled long and hard in this common effort getting plenty hungry and tired in the process, the experimenters rather casually making sure the total team pushing the truck was well mixed, members of the Eagles and Snakes randomly side by side.

Finally they made it to a nicely placed mechanic’s shop and soon after had their tasty lunch. The common labor made a few tentative friends across the line

dividing poisonous snakes from birds of prey. Some respect and sympathy for “the others” grew. Pushing the truck was the cooperative ice-breaker and the experimenters could relax on their competition promotion – they got their data. The moral of the story: it seemed such common tasks, at least in some circumstances, really do work. One positive point for Khaled’s idea.

I talk about the dynamic in a slightly different way in my new book World Rescue – an Economics Built on What We Build, which I’ll get to in a moment. But as a little slice of news from my own activities, after publishing (through Ecocity Builders with availability of the book through a Google search and Amazon Books as an on-line, on-demand, on-paper publication) I wrote to most of the people I studied and quoted from or otherwise cited in my book. I let them know the book was now available and thanks a lot for the ideas and working helping my work, friends. Many of them wrote back.

Because Steven Pinker delved deeply into the patterns and origins of human violence in his book The Better Angeles of our Nature I’d mentioned to him my interest in the Mazafer Sherif experiment. He wrote back saying, “Many thanks for the kind words, the mention, and the word about your new book. I will order a copy and have a look at it. Best of luck with it, Steve. P.S. Yes, I teach the Robber’s Cave experiment in my intro psychology class every year.”

So Khaled and I are not the only one’s thinking like that. In fact, Steve Pinker goes much farther into means to deflate conflicts and calls steps in that direction “the civilizing process.” He credits the notion to “…the most important thinker you have never heard of, Norbert Elias (1897-1990).” In fact, Pinker even says Elias’ work, in several books, “…was the seed that grew into his book, The Better Angeles of our Nature. It’s not just any fly-by-night either at 696 pages getting up to 802 including notes and index and scoring the New York Times Best Seller list, which I’m still not clear on as to what that really is, since I’ve seen so many book said to be on that list.

Pinker – or Steve since he signed his note to me that way – has an unusual thesis. “Believe it or not – and I know that most people do not – violence has declined over long stretches of time, and today we might be living in the most peaceable era in our species existence. The decline to be sure,” he continues, “has not been smooth; it has not brought violence down to zero; and it is not guaranteed to continue. But it is an unmistakable development, visible on scales from millennia to years, from waging wars to the spanking of children.” Our vague impressions of levels of violence past and present has a lot to do with various myths like the popular “Noble Savage” and the distortions inherent in journalism that sniffs out and amplifies violence because people are defensibly concerned about it and pay for the copy. Pinker wanted to test out some impressions and so he devised and distributed a questionnaire through the internet asking respondents to compare the murder rates from England in the 14th century and the 20th. The averaged response was that about 14% more people pre unit of population were killed in the 14th century than in the 20th. In fact, comparing the best statistic he could uncover, 95 were killed in the 14th century for every 5 killed in the 20th per unit of population. (Throughout the book he uses the number per 100,000.)

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Steven Pinker

He writes about the “inner demons” such as predatory violence to get something someone else has, or to kill for food, dominance for power over others and prestige. Then there is revenge and sadism, which were stunningly common before nation states and “civilization” took that kind of violence down a notch. And then of course ideology, “a shared belief system, usually involving a vision of Utopia, that justifies unlimited violence in pursuit of unlimited goals.”

On the positive side Steve Pinker says we also have those better angels of our nature to work with: empathy, self-control, a moral sense, and reason. The combination of those last four add up to a pretty powerful force in the civilizing process. But that process can take some surprising forms. For example, screeds on manners made an enormous difference in reducing many forms of rather spontaneous offenses upon others, from violence to simply consideration for others. Pinker tells us a prominent scholar named Desiderius Erasmus who wrote a book on etiquette in 1530 called On Civility in Boys that was a best seller for 200 years, advising people on manners. Says Pinker, “The people in the Middle Ages were, in a word, gross. A number of the advisories in the etiquette books deal with eliminating bodily effluvia.” I won’t elaborate, but the long lists he cites are entertaining… and really gross! Even just introduction of the fork made an enormous difference, fingers and knives preceding forks, and with people almost

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Norbert Elias

wildly volatile and unconstrained then as compared to more recent times, joking around the repast could easily – and often was – badly construed as insult deserving escalation ending in violence with knives. Manner had it that eventually you weren’t even allowed to push you peas with a fork against a knife. Knives were reserved only for slicing meat and otherwise strictly taboo. Manners said keep the knife otherwise lying on the table unused. When he was a little boy, Steve wondered, why the prohibition his parents forced upon him to never push your peas against your knife? It’s bad manners. So he goes to some length talking about how difficult it was to get those peas on his stupid fork.

Could it be that another nice stride in the civilizing process might be something else surprising, like building ecocities?

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Leonardo da Vinci from the cover of Fritjof Capra’s book The Science of Leonardo – Inside the mind of the great genius of the Renaissance.

If we need yet another vote for the value of working together on some worthy project let me quote from Fritjof Capra’s book, The Science of Leonardo. Leonardo was an ethical vegetarian, refusing to eat animals because he saw them, but not plants, as sentient beings that could feel pain and he empathized with them in a way highly unusual for his times. He also famously would buy caged birds from vendors in the market places, birds intended to be for pets and release them to fly away free. So what was this sensitive man doing designing implements of war for some of his patrons? You run across this rationalization in Fritjof’s book (I really can use his first name unselfconsciously because for many years before I moved out of his neighborhood in Berkeley and into Oakland we were pretty good friends). Employment as a military engineer was a concession to his times and he’d better work for his own city state in times of war which were painfully common then, plus, as now, it was income to maintain his independence and continue his work – while claiming to be adamantly against war. Plus, you might want to help your side and maybe not be overrun by an actual enemy.

One biographer, though, cited by Fritjof, says something interesting in our context here in this article. That would be Serge Bramly: “Leonardo never participated in any offensive action. Most of his advice consisted of designing structures to defend and preserve a town or city. During a conflict between Florence and Pisa, he proposed to divert the river Arno as a means to avoid a bloody battle. He went on to add that this should be followed up with the construction of a navigable waterway that would reconcile the combatants and bring prosperity to both cities.” Would he have suggested ecocities?

Maybe he did. As those of you know who read these electronic pages off and on, and who like my books, the more compact pedestrian cities, the more three-dimensional cities with activity on more levels than just at ground level, are part of the solution – and far better than scattering flat out over the landscape in two dimensions only, pedestrians waiting at stop lights until the cars and trucks pass. In Leonardo’s day you waited until the traders and rich folks passed by on their horses or in their wagons and carriages. Leonardo had yet another idea: why not have the “motorized” traffic of the day, that is the animal power assisted transport, on one level and go three-dimensional with a second level above that for pedestrians? He made a few drawings and at least one model illustrating the idea. As he got it right for both evolution and geology, standing on the mountains of Italy noticing that the fossils of fish looked different up there if similar to contemporary fish, and rather off handedly said, “Oh, they must have lived in the seas or lakes a long time ago, looked a little different then, and later got lifted up by the rising strata of geology,” similarly he started literally up into the third dimension in his design of cities, the whole community, beginning the rise toward ecocities. Two years from the end of his life he designed such a city for the King of France, his last patron, and construction actually started. Alas, related to the essence of this article, the King got embroiled in another expensive war and the destructive energy canceled the creative project. If only the priorities had been reversed – if only we can do that now.

These dynamics in a slightly different way

Earlier I promised I’d cite my own book for a related idea. While writing World Rescue – an Economics Built on What We Build I came up with a notion I called “exaggerated gamesmanship.” We all like games to varying degrees, like our friends in Barcelona sporting their big, bold red and blue vertically striped jerseys. As implied by the term exaggerated gamesmanship the notion is things can go too far, fly out of balance, depart from the ability to reason and basis in action of empathy for the other party, two of those civilizing better angels of Elias and Pinker. Mellow out, count to ten and avoid the soccer riot that on occasion erupts from in-group or even just “in myself” emotions losing control.

But when it comes to understanding the nature of the game itself, there is no better consultant than Mr. James Carse. He wrote a book called Finite and Infinite Games. In his construct the objective of the finite game is to win. The object of the infinite game is to keep playing. In the finite game everyone agrees

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James Carse

on the rules within boundaries and the game begins. In the infinite game, part of the game is to change the rules by negotiation and keep going. In both games, finite and infinite, by the definition of all games, the participants are voluntarily participating, even if say, parents are leaning on their children for example. Finite games require participants to be very good at honoring the rules and very good at the skills involved in winning the game; the more basic kind of creativity was the individual or collective process that designed the game. Infinite games keep the participant in the fundamental position of being a creator and a leader in negotiations about altering the rules as we go and keeping in mind the place in time that the game occupies, that is, recognizing the game has changed and new skills are likely required – another level of creativity, the creativity of adapting rapidly, tuning skills development to changing times: two kinds of creativity very basic and very particular at the same time. In finite games, when played well, you win, its over, collect your prize in material or social terms and later maybe you’d do the same game again. In infinite games you just keep winning, losing, adjusting, creating, defining new rules, winning… and life goes on.

That’s right – keeping life going is rather like the infinite game, and in fact might be called the ultimate infinite game. Nothing wrong with finite games, but when competition violates the lives of others, when it becomes “exaggerated” in my construct, sliding into violence and war, for whatever causes in greed, ego, sex-drive, preemptive “defense” that actually isn’t preemptive, revenge and so on, that’s pathological and the damage can be catastrophic on a planetary scale. In our case, us humans, we are already extinguishing thousands of other species and endangering ourselves.

On the relatively mild side, contrasting finite and infinite games, what about wasting time in involvement with finite games to the point of neglecting the such infinite games we should be playing like how to figure out and reverse climate change or end wars? Especially historically right now, there are so many playing fields of the infinite game that desperately need high degrees of gamesmanship-like creativity and flexible skills, that it may be a very big negative that so much time and energy, money and even infrastructure and technological gizmos is diverted to support relatively irrelevant finite games. This may be a disastrous turning away from exactly what is most needed at the worst possible time.

The infinite ecocity game

Going back to the conversation with Khaled Tarabieh that initiated this train of thought, what about building ecocities for those two reasons: the benefits inherent in having functioning, living cities that “build soils and restore biodiversity” and consciously building peace at the same time? Something of a side note along the way, the very audacity and creativity of building ecocities adjusts the excitement of “peace” way upward. During my years in the peace movement I knew many of the more macho militant, usually male activists who cringed when someone called it the “peace movement.” To them it was the anti-war movement. In our No War Toys subset of the peace movement (there I’ve said it!) I had two wealthy partners who helped financially some and in many other ways, hosting various events, co-planning demonstrations and strategy and so on. They were a husband and wife team. The husband never spoke of the peace movement. He was very specifically anti-war. The wife didn’t find the name controversy particularly interesting – either term was fine with her. But it was too passive, as in pacifist, for him. What was to be done, not just war not done? Where would all that psychological energy, vitality and moral drive and commitment of the person working to avoid war actually go? There was a kind of vacuum implied by going for peace without defining the activities of a really active peace, something that would speak directly to the question what should we human be actually doing, where going? That’s where ecocities come in: something actually quite exciting: creativity in the largest scale as versus destructivity in the largest scale.

Oh yes, that was the night of the big game in Barcelona. What happened? The home team lost their finite game. Everyone was depressed. For a while. No doubt they geared up for another run at that particular finite game. While meantime life goes on all around us. Will the infinite game of building ecocities get the focus to be played big time, as one of the more important endless ventures in the endless big venture, the infinite game life seems to be playing here on Planet Three?

About the author

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.