(noun) 1. An eden-like city. 2. Economic + ecological abundance.
The story of a new word, a new hope, a new approach to sustainability.
What does sustainability mean to you?
Environmentalism vs. design
A new word
Bezos rapes universe
Unique design insights
Living in space vs. earth
Tiny house community
Big, fast, urban and corporate
Tesla design vs. politics
▲ What does sustainability mean to you?
Do you imagine going on a personal consumer diet to save the planet? That's what Greta Thunberg, the famous teenage Swedish activist wants us all to do right now.
Do you think of climate change and the need for governments to make inconvenient choices to stop it? That's what Al Gore told us in 2007.
Does it feel like the party's over, as oil and every other resource gets scarcer and more expensive—as Richard Heinberg warned in 2003?
If you're old enough, maybe you recall President Jimmy Carter in the 1970s, asking us to tighten our belts and stop using so much energy.
Earlier still, were the American back to the land movements of the 1940s, 50s, 60s and 70s, with their demands for less technology, less convenience, less science, fewer amenities and maybe even fewer people.
Decade after decade, environmentalists have exhorted everyone to stop being so greedy, scale back and live simpler to save the planet.
But is this call to austerity working?
Is there more or less carbon in the atmosphere than there was 60 years ago, or 20 years ago, or 10 years ago? More of course: the famous Keeling graph of atmospheric carbon levels since 1958 keeps going up with no sign of leveling out (I posted a link to it in the program notes). Is the global mass extinction slowing? No! Species extinctions are worse than they've been since the dinosaurs (see the program notes for a link on that).
If personal choice and political will are failing us, could it be that we're not thinking about the environment in a useful way? Could there be some other way of thinking that could finally change everything?
Spoiler alert: yes, there is! And I'm pretty sure it will blow your mind.
▲ Intro [music]
Cities designed like modern Edens for economic and ecological abundance. I'm Kev Polk, your guide to Edenicity.
Welcome to Episode One, where I introduce a new word, Edenicity, and a completely new way of thinking about sustainability.
▲ Environmentalism vs. Design
This is a design show. And by design, I mean the spatial arrangement of objects, landscapes, living beings and natural forces to achieve a goal. Everything I discuss in this show has to do with design.
The design goal of this show is to end the global mass extinction (which I discuss in the next episode) and heal the environment.
The problem is, up until now, most of us thought of environmentalism as a political movement.
Now, on the face of it, this seems to make sense, doesn't it? I mean, mass movements are really good at overthrowing ideas that are unjust. For example, the suffrage movement, after years and years of struggle, enfranchised half the population at the stroke of a pen.
But sustainability is not like that. It doesn't challenge just one idea. It challenges every system that keeps us alive: housing, transportation, energy, and food. These are huge, complex systems, and the way they're built is killing the world.
In other words, sustainability was never about personal or political will, or even trying to make do with less. It's fundamentally a design problem.
Clearly, we can design our lives to some extent to be more sustainable. We can go vegan, we can recycle, we can live where we can walk or bike to work. And I'll discuss the many advantages of these options in Episodes 4 and 6. But in Episode 2, I'll show how the sum of all these choices is not even close to enough to save the planet, and how these choices barely address the biggest cause of extinction, which is loss of wild habitat.
No, the things we have to redesign are way bigger than our personal choices, and politicians aren't designers—especially not at the national level.
Besides, nations are probably the wrong scale for this work anyway: too slow, too abstract, too politically unresponsive. For reasons that every episode in this series will make clearer, I believe the place to start redesigning is the city.
Design creates opportunity. Redesigning cities at this point in history will create opportunities the likes of which the world has never seen.
▲ A New Word
So we're redesigning cities to end the mass extinction and heal the earth. What shall we call this topic? I thought it was so vast that it deserved a new word.
Now one way to create a new word is to jamb other words together with such force that some letters drop out and you're left with something unique. This is called a portmanteau. For example, if you're choking on smog your way to brunch to discuss a frenemy's cosplay mockumentary, well, that's five portmanteaus in a row.
I pictured a city that was itself a bit like the Garden of Eden: no choking traffic, just lush gardens. The word for something that is Eden-like is edenic. Edenic plus city became Edenicity, a new word for an Eden-like city, and that's our first definition.
But that word also sounds a bit like a physical phenomenon, doesn't it? Something like electricity. Or maybe a property like ethnicity, or an activity such as publicity. And to me anyway, because I like numbers, it seems most like a measure word like velocity or elasticity. But what would Edenicity measure?
Well, Edenic already connotes ecological sustainability. I think everybody can agree that the fabled Garden of Eden was sustainable. But in an urban context, I felt that its design should also deliver economic abundance, or it would soon fall to ruin.
I was influenced by the urban theorist Jane Jacobs, who in her 2000 book, The Nature of Economies, wrote that economics is a subset of ecology.
I believe that. I mean, think about that for a moment.
Traditional discourse, both conservative and liberal, pits the economy against ecology. So it's jobs versus trees, manufacturing versus clean water, energy versus clean air. But Jane Jacobs and a few others are saying "no, clean air and water and forest cover are measures of wealth, not impediments to wealth."
As we'll soon discover, we can take this concept much further.
So Edenicity equals ecological sustainability plus economic abundance.
Now let's consider that root word Eden, as in the Garden of Eden. Disclaimer: I am not a religious scholar. So I'm talking about this in the secular tradition of Eden's long literary history.
Was Eden sustainable? Of course. Adam and Eve could have lived there forever, according to the story
Did Eden make economic sense? In other words, were Adam and Eve rich or poor?
Now, I imagine that could be a topic of lively theological debate. But to my secular mind, it's obvious that they were very rich.
I mean, this was the highest value real estate in the universe, and they had the run of the place. They had a health plan unseen since the beginning of time: perfect health and perfect longevity, no injuries or accidents—all prepaid.
By definition, then, the edenicity of Eden would have to be 100%, wouldn't it?
So here's a question for you: is it possible to have an edenicity greater than 100%?
Well, what about that pesky fruit of knowledge? What about free will? And let's face it, did Eden have WiFi? Did it have TikTok? Did it even have a corner pub where Adam and Eve could hang out with their friends?
Again, looking at this from a secular lens, it's clear that there are many things we might want if we built a replica of Eden right now. Things that were not present in the original story. And we would most definitely pay extra for these add ons.
An Edenicity of 100% is necessary to end the mass extinction. But we need to add a lot of modern extras, or modern people won't choose to live there. Therefore, we need an Edenicity greater than 100%.
My mathematical models return profits upwards of 50% and sequester carbon up to four times faster than we're currently emitting it (at least in the short term). That puts the edenicity of Edenicity above 150%.
Just to recap, Edenicity could mean an Eden-like city, or a measure of a city's economic and ecological abundance.
I've mapped out 42 episodes that explore how Edenicity will work, and how it's already starting to unfold in the world today.
▲ About me
This is going to be a journey unlike anything you've ever heard before. So I owe you a proper introduction. With your permission, here's a little about me.
I was always interested in space travel, especially permanent space habitats. This fueled my academics and landed me at Princeton University where I studied astrophysics and joined the Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS for short). SEDS was a club devoted to escaping Earth before we completely ruined it.
If you're not in the tech field, it's probably a surprise that there's people who think that we could literally do better in a radioactive vacuum than we can here on Earth, where millions of species have already made this a very livable place for us. But a lot of people in technology, science, and certainly in space exploration, really think we could go it alone and build something more livable beyond Earth.
▲ Bezos rapes universe
I quickly became vice president of SEDS. The President was none other than Jeff Bezos, who a decade later launched amazon.com, and is now the richest person on earth.
I wrote about Jeff in the introduction to my 2007 book Gaiome (linked in the show notes). He's giving a public talk on campus about turning asteroids into space colonies, when a student in the audience screams at him: "how dare you rape the universe!" and storms out.
His response is priceless: "Did she just defend the inalienable rights of barren rocks?"
Jeff's still giving more or less the same speech. My thinking has gradually changed a lot. But SEDS planted the seed of designing Edenicity's large scale life support systems.
▲ Unique Design Insights
After a decade in space exploration, I left to launch a software company. I was writing astronomy apps for the Palm Pilot, the ancient ancestor of today's smartphone. It was 1,000 times slower, with 1,000 times less memory than the dumbest of today's smartphones.
Cramming the sun, moon planets, comets, asteroids, and over a million stars and galaxies into that slow little device, and animating them all, was hard.
I had to take algorithms off the shelf and speed them up by factors of 400 or more, and I had to make it easy to use under the natural sky.
Now, I've read plenty of design books. But this experience taught me some things about design that I haven't found anywhere else. I'll share those lessons in Episodes 5 and 9.
▲ Living in Space vs. Earth
Eventually, I decided to seriously research living in space and what it would really take to make it happen.
To my dismay, I discovered that not only are we not yet ready to live very long in space, we're no longer even qualified to live much longer on planet Earth.
When I dug into the ecology of it, it looked like we would have to shrink our land, energy and resource use by 95% or more to survive much longer on this planet.
Does that seem extreme? If you use the ecological footprint calculator posted in the show notes, it will probably say that you are using resources two to five times faster than what Earth can handle. I'm saying no, it's more like 20 times faster!
I'll get into the reasons why in the next episode, but the basic challenge is this: can you reduce your resource consumption by 95%?
I took that challenge personally, and earned two permaculture design certificates. Permaculture itself is a portmanteau of "permanent" and "agriculture." Think of it as applied ecology. I'll describe it in detail in episodes 19 and 20.
I also visited dozens of eco villages and organic farms and helped out with several of them. I built houses using renewable materials. I co-founded the Green Acres ecovillage in Bloomington, Indiana, which I describe in Episode 23. And I gradually began to question what I was seeing.
A suburban homeowner that I visited in Athens, Ohio spent over $150,000 in upgrades to reduce his energy consumption. I realized that almost no one would take the heroic effort he had. And even if everyone did, it wouldn't be enough. He had only reduced his consumption by 70%, and it needed to be 95% or more.
I founded an organic garden, mowed with scythe, delivered my wares to market on a bicycle. I built three tiny houses. And little by little, my science degree was starting to grumble.
I mean, for one thing, with tiny houses, the area to volume ratio is inefficient. This is why small planets cool off faster than larger planets. Heating and cooling these little Homes is not a good deal for the owners.
I also noticed that homesteading and market gardening was a lifestyle that lacked specialization. This is the economic recipe for poverty.
▲ Tiny House Community
I eventually tried to start a tiny house community. The location was wonderful: a mile from uptown Athens, Ohio on the bike path. But the tiny house owner-builders in the area weren't interested in paying a small monthly $250 maintenance fee for community gardens and a community house where they could cook, bathe and do laundry. Meanwhile, $750 a month apartments miles away from campus, inaccessible except by car, were waitlisted.
That's when I realized that even the most heroic lifestyle activists have their limits; building a house and a community was too much for most of them. Most people don't want to build either one; they just want a good enough place to live.
I started questioning everything including permaculture.
Now let me be clear: permaculture is the method I use to design Edenicity in this series. But permaculture comes with some very bad ideas left over from the back to the land movement. I call most of them out in Episode 20, but I demolish its worst idea, a preference for small and slow solutions, in episodes 3 and 31.
▲ Big, Fast, Urban and Corporate
I started putting together mathematical models of sustainability that were as heretical as possible. I said, "Alright, let's make these big, fast urban and corporate!"
Yeah, I said it. Corporate!
Look, the Sierra Club is a corporation. Earth First is a corporation. Greenpeace, the Nature Conservancy: all corporations. Nonprofit, but still corporate.
Then there's Tesla, the electric car and solar roof company. Tesla's mission (look it up on its website) is to accelerate the world's transition to sustainable energy. They've done more to achieve that goal than any other entity in the world. It's a corporation, and I'm not going to hate on it.
▲ Tesla design vs. politics
Tesla the car brings to light one of the great powers of design. Namely, that design reconciles false dichotomies.
Back in the days of Jimmy Carter, you had fuel efficiency versus speed versus safety: choose one.
Now with Tesla, we have the world's most efficient, fastest and safest production car all in one package.
How? By understanding design at a very deep level. In Episode 5 of this series, I'll go deep into design. In Episode 9, I'll have a lot more to say about Tesla, and about how real estate is ripe for an even bigger disruption than the car industry.
▲ Reference Design
Just to give you the big picture, I've put together a reference design for Edenicity, which you can download from the show notes. It's a city of about 5.4 million people. Now, nature would like it bigger, if anything (at least if the city doesn't sprawl or pollute). Bigger cities draw more population out of a given region into a smaller area that leaves more wilderness between cities for natural habitats to heal.
For people, 5 million seems like a very livable population. It's about the same as Singapore, Norway, Denmark, and Finland. It's efficient for city services such as transportation. It also provides a lot of social capital, meaning opportunities for families, friendships and businesses to grow.
Now, you might be wondering: "Wait a minute! 5 million people? Won't that be noisy, dirty and dangerous?"
Well, it could be, but not if you design it right. Let's start with the main source of noise, dirt and danger: Cars.
The number one ground rule for Edenicity is no cars, no roads, no highways, no parking lots and no gas stations or dealerships. That alone frees up as much as 70% of your urban landscape for other uses.
But without cars, how will people get around?
Edenicity is designed to disperse a lot of the economic activity throughout the city. Half the workforce should be able to walk to work in eight minutes or less within their immediate village. That's where you'll also find most of your shops, schools and clinics too.
But for those commuting into city center, it will take at most 20 minutes door to door during rush hour.
You walk to your village square and catch a loop pod. This is a high speed van with 16 seats. Its gull wing doors let everyone board at once and be seated in seconds. It drops underground and accelerates to 240 kilometers an hour, three times as fast as a subway. This is a direct trip with no stops from the outermost village. That's a four-minute ride to the city center, and you arrive at a station just a short walk from your workplace.
The longest possible door to door, corner to corner trip across the city would be 24 minutes. This is far better than any city of this size today.
In his book Car Free Cities, J.H. Crawford argues for making public transit a free service. This would cut the overall cost of infrastructure by a lot. Instead of taking that long escalator down to a mezzanine level where you have to pay your fares and then down another level to catch a metro, Edenicity lets you just catch a loop pod at the surface without pausing for fares. This cuts costs, increases safety, saves time and accelerates the economy.
Now, in this city, you're living in a patchwork of forests, farms and rowhouse apartments. Most buildings have four floors. They have rooftop gardens that provide a large fraction of your food and moderate your building's climate. Their ground floors have cafes, shops, daycares, and various offices. Every block has orchards and kitchen gardens, and every village is ringed by broadacre crops, grazing and ponds. Clusters of nine villages are embedded in a large forest that spans the entire city, and it's all within a short walk or bike ride from every door.
These elements already start to build a booming economy because they provide a lot more opportunities to build social connection than cities do today. You have a really active street life and fast, easy access to all the services and opportunities the city has to offer.
It will also be wildly profitable. Charles Montgomery, in his 2013 book Happy City, gives countless examples of how mixed use high-density development has raised the tax base and vitalized towns.
Notice that I didn't say "revitalized." Edenicity will bring a vitality to city life that has never existed before, combined with the serenity of a lush garden environment.
▲ Environmental benefits
And finally, we should ask: “what does all this do for the environment at large?”
The green spaces that fill the city follow a permaculture model that has restored some endangered species (mostly amphibians) in settled areas. The city itself will also sequester more carbon dioxide than it releases. For reasons discussed in Episode 15, intensive farming within the city will have much higher yields than commercial agriculture, reducing demand for massive factory farms.
Edenicity will use its powerful economic engine to establish land trusts in the surrounding region. These buy up areas degraded by agriculture and suburban sprawl, and restore their wild habitats. This process can sequester atmospheric carbon up to four times faster than we're releasing it now over the short term and bring countless species back from the edge of extinction.
Again, if you want to download the reference design so you can see what this looks like, just visit the link in the program notes.
▲ Close (music)
Let's go back to that opening question: What does environmentalism mean to you?
If you're starting to think of it in terms of design, that's good. That's the goal of the Edenicity podcast.
Edenicity is an Eden-like city designed to have at least 50% more ecological and economic abundance than its namesake, the Garden of Eden.
In the next 41 episodes, we'll explore the city in detail and the world it makes possible. That way, you'll recognize ecologically sound design the instant you see it, and be ready to make the leap.
If you enjoyed episode one, please rate it on iTunes or Google Play. Be sure to visit edenicity.com to download a copy of the reference design from the design link. And please join me next time when I'll delve into the Edenicity of ending the global mass extinction.
I'm Kev Polk and this has been Edenicity.