This is the origin story of a word, an idea that could redefine our relationship with the environment, and an opportunity many times bigger than the Internet.
Speaking of the Internet, don't miss the infamous story (at 12:45) about how Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos was called to task in college for his cosmic ambitions.
Let's start with three questions
Number one. Have you made any lifestyle choices to benefit the environment? Maybe you recycle. Maybe you've chosen to eat a little lower on the food chain. Maybe you've made transportation choices to reduce your carbon footprint.
That brings us to the second question, which is: how sustainable do we really have to be? I mean, if you do everything you can and everyone else does, too, will it be enough to reverse climate change and end the mass extinctions?
Question number three: Are we even thinking about sustainability in a useful way? We live in the Greta Thunberg era with Extinction Rebellion. A decade and a half ago, Al Gore was warning us about the inconvenient truths that we would soon have to live with. And Richard Heinberg was telling us the party's over with peak oil. In the 1970s, Jimmy Carter was telling us to tighten our belts, and there was a back to the land movement. For more than 40 years, we've been exhorted to stop being greedy and go on some sort of a personal consumer diet 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 44 years ago? Or 14, or even last year? (Hint: more!) Is the extinction rate slowing? (Hint: No!) Could there be some other way of thinking about our relationship to the environment that would change anything ... or everything?
Spoiler alert. Yes, there is, and I'm pretty sure it will blow your mind.
Sustainability through massive abundance. I'm Kev Polk, your guide to Edenicity.
Design vs. Environmentalism
Welcome to Episode 1, where I introduce the series and a few of the wild ideas that shape it. This is a design show about sustainability and abundance and cities. If I ever seem off topic, remember, we're looking at everything in terms of how it's designed. That's what's different about this approach to sustainability, and it drives everything I'll be talking about here.
Let's contrast design with traditional environmentalism, which has been very grassroots. Mass movements are really good at overthrowing ideas that are unjust. The suffrage movement, after years and years of struggle, enfranchised half the population at a stroke of the pen. But sustainability is not like that. It doesn't just challenge one idea. It challenges us to reshape our relationships with the land and the millions of other species that keep this planet livable. Changing everyone's minds, behavior or even the law is not enough. The reality is the transportation, food, energy and housing systems that keep us alive right now are big, complex, and they're killing the world. Maybe sustainability has eluded us because it's not about choices and greed versus compassion. Maybe it's mostly about design. And if it is about design, we need to look at big systems first and explore their design alternatives rather than retreating to the small just because the big has failed us in the past.
How big should our focus be? I believe for reasons I'll get into throughout the series that the place to start 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
Now I was looking for a word, a domain name, maybe a trademark to encapsulate this topic and because I was focused on Cities without Cars as one of the solutions, I was coming up with ideas like bikurb, gaiaurb, and gaiaopolis, velo.city (that's pretty obscure) Bikeopolis, EcoMegaMetro, WildGreen.city, GreenMegaCity. Hundreds of variations like this; and I began to realize that words are discovered, not made. They have a history and a life of their own. One way to create new words is to jam them together with such force that letters drop out and you're left with a new word. This is called a portmanteau. So, for example, if you are choking on smog on your way to a brunch to discuss a frenemy's cosplay mockumentary, well, that's five portmanteaus in a row.
So edenic plus city becomes edenicity. And that's our first definition. Also edenicity. sounds like the noun form of the adjective edenic, which means eden-like: very much like the Garden of Eden. And it also has kind of the connotation of a physical phenomenon like electricity, or a property like ethnicity, or an activity such as publicity. And to me anyway, because I like numbers, it's a measure word like velocity or toxicity or elasticity. So our second definition, then, is how edenic something is.
Now, edenic already connotes ecological sustainability. I think everybody can agree that the Garden of Eden was sustainable. But to me it also connotes economic abundance. And I'm very much influenced by Jane Jacobs, who in her 2000 book The Nature of Economies, wrote that economics is a subset of ecology, and 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 even further.
So edenicity = ecological sustainability + economic abundance.
So let's think about that root word Eden. The Garden of Eden. And disclaimer here: I'm not a religious scholar, so I'm talking about this in the secular tradition of a long literary history of the word. Was it sustainable? Sure, it was sustainable when Adam and Eve lived there, according to the story. Were they rich or poor? Now I imagine that's a topic of lively debate in many churches, 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. I mean, basically perfect health, perfect longevity, no injuries or accidents. And it's all prepaid. So the edenicity of Eden would have to be 100% wouldn't it?
Well, what about that pesky fruit of knowledge? What about free will? And let's face it, I mean, did they have WiFi? Did they have Instagram? Did they even have a corner pub where they could hang out with their friends? Again I'm looking at this from a secular lens, and it's clear that there are many things we might want in an Eden -- if we built a replica of one right now -- that were not present in the original story. So if we built that replica right now, I would say it would have an edenicity of a little less than 100%, because people would pay more for some add-ons, some perks: the WiFi, the instagram and so forth.
So here's a question for you. Is it possible to have edenicty greater than 100%?
I would say that it's not only possible, it's desirable or even necessary if you want to create change. When I ran spreadsheets of edenicity, I came up with a return on investment of about 18% and that was about as high as I could go while keeping the rents low enough so everybody could afford to live there. So then I looked at restoring habitat and sequestering carbon. And on that same spreadsheet, we were able to do that at about four times the rate that we're currently harming the environment. So the edenicity, at least on the spreadsheet, was somewhere between 118% on economic grounds and 400% for the environment.
So just to recap edenicity could mean an edenic city, or a measure of how edenic something is.
Now I've mapped out an embarrassingly large number of episodes. I'm not gonna tell you that number, but I will say that I'm hoping to interview at least 30 of the designers, builders, architects of the most edenic places on the earth and bring them to the show so you can really see how this is playing out already in the world today.
This is going to be a long, interesting journey. And if you stick around, I know that I owe you a proper introduction. So with your permission, here's my design biography.
Let me start with a question: are numbers cuddly or prickly?
We're going into tax season right now. And so I'm guessing for a lot of people, yep, they're kind of prickly, right? But to me, they've always been cuddly. And I recently figured out why. When I was three, maybe four years old, I used to count my stuffed animals before I went to sleep each night. And if they were all there, everything was right with the world and I could go to sleep in peace. So to me, numbers have always been cuddly. They've always been restful and reassuring. And so I design with numbers. Now, later on I got an astrophysics degree from Princeton University, and I have a story to tell you about that in a second. But when I taught astrophysics to non-majors, one of my biggest tasks was getting them to start visualizing numbers. Because when a scientist just start blabbing numbers, they're seeing pictures. They're seeing stories, they're relating to a situation. But to the listener, it's just numbers. So I'm gonna be introducing you to the stories as much as I can behind the numbers as we go.
Bezos Rapes the Universe
While I was at Princeton, I was a member of the Students for the Exploration and Development of Space, and this was basically a club that was devoted to escaping Earth before we completely ruined it. And, you know, if you are new to tech, if you're not in the tech field, then this is a really huge surprise, isn't it? That there's people who think that we could literally, like, 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 tech and certainly in space exploration really have this idea that we have to create a life boat before it's too late. And at the time that was definitely one of my beliefs. I thought the world was shrinking every day and our problems with getting worse every day, and we really did need alternatives on the moon or Mars or out in space somewhere. So I was the vice president of that organization, of SEDS, for a very brief time. And during that time, the president was none other than Jeff Bezos, who, you probably know, was the founder of amazon.com.
I'm gonna read to you from a situation that happened during one of our meetings. By the way, this is from a book that I wrote in 2007. It's called Gaiome: Notes on Ecology, Space Travel and Becoming Cosmic Species. The introduction opens with:
"On a crisp fall evening in 1985, the Princeton University chapter of SEDS held an open meeting. About two dozen undergraduates attended, spreading out in groups of two or three among the raised hardwood pews of a small lecture hall. The club's president, Jeff Bezos, talked a little about said, and a lot about his dreams for a glorious future in space.
"At one point, he was describing a scheme to build a gigantic space habitats that theoretically could have millions of people. The construction technique involved using huge solar mirrors to heat a metal asteroid until it was completely molten. Then workers would plunge a long tungsten tube into its center and inject large quantities of water. This would flash into steam, inflating the asteroid like a balloon to make a spherical hull–
"A loud slam cut him off. A student in the middle of the room jumped up and, choking back sobs of rage, yelled, 'How dare you rape the universe!'
"After she had stormed out, Jeff, more bemused than ruffled, leaned toward me and another SEDS officer and said: 'Did I hear her right? Did she really just defend the inalienable rights of barren rocks?'"
Now Bezos is actually still making more or less the same speech. I'm gonna stress that my view has definitely shifted and evolved a lot since those days.
Unique Design Insights
I spent about a decade working in space exploration and left the field to launch a software company. I was writing astronomy software for the Palm Pilot, which is kind of the ancient ancestor of today's smartphone; ancient and much dumber ancestor. It was 1,000 times slower, with 1,000 times less memory than the dumbest of the smart phones today. Now, trying to put a 1,000,000 stars on this thing and have the planets and the sun and moon and animate it all was really a challenge. I had to take algorithms off the shelf and speed them up by factors of 400 or more. And this taught me some things about design that I haven't really found anywhere else. We'll be talking about that in a later episode.
Living in Space vs. Earth
Eventually, I got curious about this whole idea that we'd had in college about living in space and whether we could actually do it and what it would really take. And so that's when I began writing the book I quoted from earlier.
To my dismay and shock, I discovered that not only are we not yet ready to build lifeboats in space that would really sustain us at all, but we're no longer even qualified to live on this planet for any significant length of time.
When I dug into the ecology of it, it looked like we would have to shrink our land and resource use by 95% or more!
That's a figure that's, like, four or five times more extreme than probably anything you've seen before. I mean, maybe you've Googled your ecological footprint, your carbon footprint, and discovered that you were using resources five times faster than you should have. I'm saying no, it's more like 20 times faster, and I'll get into the reasons why in the next episode, and basically how edenicity responds to that. But the basic takeaway here was -- the basic challenge was -- can you reduce your resource footprint by 95%?
Well, I took that challenge personally, and enrolled in permaculture design courses. I eventually earned two permaculture design certifications. Now permaculture itself is a portmanteau of permanent and agriculture, so it's permanent agriculture. And to my mind, it's really applied ecology. I'll be devoting a couple of episodes to permaculture later on. I also took extension courses in organic gardening. I visited 100 or so organic farms and ecovillages and helped out with many of them. I built houses using renewable materials. I co founded the Green Acres ecovillage in Bloomington, Indiana ... and gradually began to question what I was seeing.
I visited a suburban retrofit in Athens, Ohio, where the owner had put over $150,000 into increasing the efficiency of the house and putting solar panels on the roof. He had reduced his overall consumption by about 70% which is a far cry from the 95% that I thought was necessary, and it cost him a lot. I realized hardly anyone is going to take this kind of heroic effort. I founded an organic garden. I mowed with a scythe. I delivered my wares to market on a bicycle, built three tiny houses... and, little by little, in the back of the mind, that astrophysics degree was starting to grumble. I mean, for one thing, with tiny houses, the area/volume ratio is inefficient. This is why small planets cool off faster than larger planets. A small house is less efficient to heat and cool for the amount of space that you get. It's not a really good deal for for the owners. I also noticed in organic farming and basically small scale homesteading that there was a lack of specialization. So you end up with lots of work of producing medium quality products for very low pay.
Even Joel Salatin, in his book You Can farm, which is just a brilliant piece of work, said, Look, when you start out in this field, you're looking at years and years of 100 hour weeks for your whole family, where you're not gonna take vacations. You're gonna be on site pretty much the whole time trying to make this thing work before you break even. And I saw that play out again and again.
Tiny House Community
I eventually found a parcel of about seven acres just a mile from uptown Athens, Ohio, right on the bike path. And the owner was really keen on us building a tiny house community there. By then, I was in touch with a lot of tiny house builders, and they got really excited about this until I mentioned the rent.
Now, I mean, the deal was pretty good, right? The location's good. The community is good. There was gonna be a common house with showers and laundry facilities, so he didn't have to build those into your tiny house. So you share the things that could be shared and you have your intensely private little tiny house that you built with your own hands and maintain with your own hands. And so I said, "Yeah, this is great. It'll only cost $250 a month" -- and they said, "No, we're not doing it!"
This shocked me. I was like, What? I mean there are apartments going for $750 a month, miles away from campus, inaccessible except by car. And they were wait listed. And yet I couldn't get the tiny house people interested at $250 a month. They felt like, "Hey, I've built my house. I mean, I've got friends, I've got family. I'll just go camp on their land and I don't need to pay any more." The whole point was not to have to pay any more.
That's the moment that I realized that a lot of people, perhaps the majority of people, are looking for turnkey solutions. And even if you build the tiny house, you maybe aren't so interested in building a community. So around the same time, I began to question some of the ideas of permaculture that have come along for the ride.
Now, let me be clear. I think Permaculture is going to be a big part of the solutions that we're gonna be talking about in this series, but I think that some really bad Ideas have come along for the ride in permaculture, and I'm gonna call them out. The first one being that small and slow solutions are to be preferred in all cases.
What I noticed was that actually the biggest success stories in sustainable living were not small. And they weren't at the scale of homesteads. They were large and regional. There was the Loess Plateau in China. There's Village Homes in Davis, California. There was Cuba during the Special Period in the nineties, when they were embargoed and the Soviet Union had collapsed: they didn't have oil. So these were large scale efforts, and they were where permaculture worked best.
Big, Fast, Urban and Corporate
So at this point has started putting together spreadsheets and made them as heretical is possible. I said, All right, let's make these big, fast urban and corporate.
Corporate?! Yeah, I said it. Corporate.
Look. The Sierra Club is a corporation. Earth First is a corporation, Greenpeace, the Nature Conservancy: all corporations. Nonprofits, but they're still corporate. Maybe you've heard of Tesla Motors. Well, the CEO, Elon Musk, in an interview with Tim Urban, said: "I don't know what a businesses is. all the company is is a bunch of people getting together to create a product or service. There's no such thing as a business just pursuit of a goal. A group of people pursuing a goal."
Now Tesla's mission (you can go to its web site and look it up) is to accelerate the world's transition to sustainable energy. And I would argue that they have done more to move that goal forward than just about any other entity in the world. At this point, maybe maybe the German government gives them a little bit of competition because of the massive installation of renewable power. But, I mean, Tesla's doing a lot on a large scale.
One other thing that Tesla brings to light is that you can see in the design of the Tesla 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 vehicle in one package.
How? By understanding design at a very deep level.
In Episode 5 of this series, we'll go deep into design, and I'll talk a lot about Tesla and about how real estate is no different from software or Tesla, and it's ripe for a huge disruption.
Now, I've put together a reference design for the edenic city, which is available is a download on edenicity.com.
In any case, the idea here was to come up with something that would be the sweet spot for Earth and for people. So I came up with a city of about 5.5 million people. Now the environment would like a bigger city. Because bigger cities create more room between cities, they would basically pull population out of a region and so there'd be more room between cities. For habitat restoration, there would be fewer transportation corridors to fragment habitats, and habitat fragmentation is one of the leading causes of mass extinctions.
For the environment, I mean, the bigger your city, the better. Especially if you're designing it so that it's not polluting. There's quite a bit of ecosystem services within the city itself, as we'll get into in a moment. For people, I think the best number is somewhere between three and six million. That works really well for transportation. It gives you a lot of social capital, meaning a strong economy, and it's just basically efficient.
Now you might wonder: "Wait a minute! 3 to 6 million people: won't that be noisy, or dirty, or 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!
Let's make it a ground rule that the city has NO cars, NO roads, NO highways, NO parking lots, NO dealerships. That alone frees up an incredible amount of land.
How do people get around in such a place? Okay, so let's talk about that average commute for people who live in the outer districts but work in the city center. And this would be a fairly small population compared to the whole, because the way a large city like this would have to be designed is for a lot of the economic activity to be dispersed throughout the city. Much more than half the people would work within a district within walking distance. But for those commuting into the center, you have a 14 minute commute at rush hour, and this would break down like this:
You'd leave your apartment. It would be about a one minute walk to a covered bike path. There, you would either unpack your foldie (this would be a folding bike like a Brompton) or you would just hop on a bike share. It will be four minutes to the metro, then maybe a two minute wait at the metro, then five minutes into the city, then two minutes walk to your workplace. 14 minutes total.
The longest possible trip from one door in the outermost district to a door on the opposite end of the city in the outermost district would be 36 minutes. This is far better than pretty much anywhere close to this size today.
And when I looked at an efficient metro system such as the type that are that have been suggested by J.H. Crawford in Car Free Cities, you could build one of those at a cost per year of something like $350 per person. And that's small enough to just take that out of property taxes. And then you can make it a free service and skip like a whole level of infrastructure underground. So instead of going down two floors through that mezzanine level where you pay your fares, you just skip that and have the metro accessible, just one level down, so it further speeds things up. And this by itself would be a huge benefit to the economy.
Now, in this city, you're living in a patchwork of forests, farms and apartments, and your building would have a few floors. Most of the districts would be not terribly high rise. There would be farm to table ground floor cafes and other sort of small scale shops and daycares and things like that. And then in the buildings where you live, there would be rooftop gardens. These would act to provide food as well as moderate your building climate. Every block would have orchards and kitchen gardens, and every town or district would be ringed by broad acre crops, grazing, ponds, forests --all within about a 10 minute walk or three minute bike ride from just about every door. These elements already would start to build a booming economy because they provide a lot more opportunities to build social capital than cities do today. You have a really active street life with ground floor cafes, shops, daycares. This takes a movement which you may be already familiar with called New Urbanism, and extends it to its logical conclusion, which would be getting rid of the cars and really building the spaces for people.
And it could be wildly profitable. Charles Montgomery, in his book The Happy City, gave countless examples of how mixed use high density development has raised the tax base and vitalized towns.
Notice I didn't say "revitalized." In many cases, the vitality that these kinds of developments bring to towns never existed before.
And finally we should ask, "Well, what does all this do for the environment at large?"
With a powerful economic engine and in-town agriculture, there's the possibility of making regional investments and creating land trusts to sequester carbon and restore habitat up to four times faster than we're harming the environment now.
Again, if you want to download a reference designe so you can see what it looks like, just visit the link in the program notes.
All right, so back to our first questions that we opened the program [with].
Are you making lifestyle choices to benefit the environment? If you are, good! Good for you. I am too. I do everything I can.
Are these personal choices sufficient? No, Sadly, they're not. Not even close. But they're still worth doing anyway because they signal the market that these things are worth doing. The fact that people are making these choices has created an investment climate that supports things like Tesla Motors and farmers markets, which are restoring the diversity of foods that we haven't seen for over a century.
And finally, are there alternatives to austerity as a response to the harm that we've caused the environment? I think I've argued that the answer to that is an emphatic yes! And we've only just scratched the surface with the edenicity. Sustainability is a design opportunity rather than just a political problem. Our prosperity is integral to our environment, and with good design, it can heal rather than harm it.
The world's urban population is growing fast, and most city buildings and houses are nearing their expiration dates, so the place to start healing the world is the city.
77x Bigger than the Internet
I saw a video by Elon Musk's brother, Kimbal Musk, where he made the case that modernizing the food system was an opportunity 12 times bigger than the Internet. When I crunched the numbers for edenicity, I came up with a number 77 times bigger than the Internet. Hence the tagline: "Sustainability through massive abundance.
This has been edenicity. If you enjoyed Episode 1, please be sure to subscribe so you don't miss an episode, and rate it on iTunes or Google Play. To get a copy of a reference design, visit edenicity.com and click the news link. Please join me next week when I'll delve into the edenicity of ending the global mass extinction.
Jane Jacobs, The Nature of Economies, Vintage; Reprint edition, 2001
Kevin Scott Polk, Gaiome: Notes on Ecology, Space Travel and Becoming Cosmic Species, 2007
Joel Salatin, You Can Farm, Polyface, 1998
Charles Montgomery, Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013
Kelly Dickerson, Elon Musk says 'there's no such thing as a business' Business Insider, Sept 3, 2015