Trying to live closer to nature is a mistake. Here’s how to fix that.
▲ “I could never live in an apartment!”
That's one of the first pieces of feedback I got five years ago when I first started talking about the idea that would become Edenicity. Since then, I've heard this objection from a lot of people.
I'm recording this episode before last week's episode airs. And in that episode, I really slammed the suburbs and rural homesteading. So of course, I expect a lot more pushback.
Edenicity involves change, so I originally anticipated objections. At first, I thought the biggest objection to living in an apartment or rowhouse, brownstone, or a townhouse would be noise and smells from the neighbors. After all, I grew up in those places, and those were the biggest hassles, so I thought I knew.
I couldn't have been more wrong.
When I interviewed people, it was a lot more basic. Again and again. suburbanites and homesteaders alike told me that what they feared the most about high density living was losing their personal connection with nature.
A woman who lived alone in her suburban bungalow told me “I want to be able to open my door and smell the fresh air, feel the grass with my feet, see the flowers and trees waving in the breeze and hear the birds singing. I don't want to spend my life in hallways and elevators.”
Recall from Episode 5 that the second function of design is to resolve false dichotomies such as freedom versus security. But the mother of all false dichotomies has to be the one between the human world and nature.
Let's examine that dichotomy and use design to resolve it.
▲ INTRO [Music]
Cities designed like modern Edens for economic and ecological abundance. Because healing the earth never was a problem of political will. It's a problem of design. I'm Kev Polk, your guide to Edenicity.
Welcome to Episode 29, where I'll discuss why trying to live closer to nature is a mistake and what we should do instead.
▲ Back to the Land?
People have been rebelling against cities and urbanization since the enclosure movements forced people from their land and mechanization cost them their high skilled jobs. There is a strong anti technology and sometimes even anti science thread that is woven into these movements. And I have to admit that I was somewhat swayed by the arguments for simplicity when I moved to rural Athens, the poorest county in Ohio, a decade ago.
For a city boy like me, it was a mesmerizing experience. I drove the moving truck through a winter wonderland of winding hilly roads. The trees hung heavy with icicles. In the snow, I could track foxes and rabbits and deer. I could see deep into the forest where there were birds nests high up in the trees, and I could see the shape of the land and how water would move through it later in the year.
Spring came in colorful fits and starts with the redbuds exploding like little purple fireworks near the edges of the forest—and deeper in the white dogwood blooms answered.
Athens, it turns out, is among the most biodiverse places in North America. Spring was filled with discoveries like spring beauties and May apples and ramps and morel mushrooms, and it seemed like thunderstorms were visiting almost every other day, roaring and flashing and brushing through the foliage.
In summer, there were glow worms and fireflies and huge green Luna moths, and eggplants and corn in the farmers market.
And in fall, oh my goodness, the leaves. I don't know if there's enough words in the English language for all the subtle hues of orange and red and gold that filled the hillsides.
Here was a place where everyone gardens or hunts. My letter carrier was an old lady bow hunter who had bagged countless bucks over the years. Even my foster kids, who had endured almost unimaginable trauma, loss and instability, knew how to wild gather edible plants while still in preschool.
But there was a dark side to this life. The drain pipe in the pond near the edge of the property had been shot up, and the entire area was littered with shotgun shell casings. We heard neighbors shooting guns at all hours of the day and night, and not just a little bit here and there. It was like a warzone. People weren't very careful with their animals. They let their dogs and cats roam and kill wildlife. They let their cattle foul the water. Many days I caught a whiff of burning plastic from people burning their trash. And when they weren't doing that, people were dumping trash everywhere. There was roadside litter, impromptu roadside dumps. Even the creek near the back of my property was littered with construction waste that included an old water heater. In this county it was not too hard to find hundreds of acres of junkyards with piles of smashed cars and trucks at least 10 meters high.
Practically every day I heard people zooming around on dirt bikes or four wheelers ripping up the soil. Now of course I know these are really important tools for people who have to do things like maintain fences on large properties. But for the most part, from what I could see, these were used as recreational vehicles—and they were loud!
And then there's the drugs. I was surprised to smell so much marijuana being smoked. My wife taught me to identify meth addicts and they were everywhere, with their faces looking almost cramped with tension. And sadly, almost everyone knew someone who lost a loved one to a massive heroin epidemic. So many of the people that I got to know were missing lots of teeth.
It was a beautiful place, but it was really hard on the poor. Poor homesteaders really suffer from isolation, lack of income, lack of social diversity and education. And in many cases, they may end up having to make bad choices for the environment just to survive.
Wealthy homesteaders are no better. In my view, they create suburban sprawl. The world's top permaculturist, Geoff Lawton, warns about eco villages becoming so successful that the land prices increase, and people end up having to get jobs in town to live there. And there you go: instant really long commute. In Episode 7, I described how I saw this in Athens, Ohio’s intentional communities, and also in The Farm in Tennessee, which became so dependent on in-town jobs that it turned into a de facto suburb.
Now, permaculture founder Bill Mollison, who was no fan of cities, wrote very ominously in his designers manual about a Type One Error, which would be clearing forests in order to farm. I saw this a lot in Athens. The poor often clear cut when they needed a quick cash infusion. And rich people honestly didn't seem to know any better. They ended up riding around their vast lawns on pollution spewing mowers, tending a grass monocrop that killed off 99% of the biodiversity of the soil, as I described in detail in Episode 13.
Whether rich or poor, modern people trying to live closer to nature end up damaging the environment.
▲ What’s missing? Ecological design!
The problem is, most of us approach nature as individuals without any inkling of design. It doesn't need to be this way. In fact, there's growing evidence that in the ancient world, it wasn't.
In his book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, Charles C. Mann points out that large swaths of North America, from the tallgrass prairies where the buffalo roamed to the Eastern forests so rich in edible food and game, were actually designed environments actively maintained for thousands of years.
More recently, in an article in Nature Plants in 2018, Maezumi and numerous other authors published an article called The Legacy of 4,500 Years of Polyculture Agroforestry in the Eastern Amazon. This paper pulls together many lines of research in many different fields to make the case that the superabundance of edibles found in the eastern Amazon is not an accident.
To me, the most striking thing about the paper is the illustration of some of the complex food systems built by ancient Amazonian civilizations that looked almost exactly like the designs I learned in my permaculture courses, which typically arranged food systems such as forests and gardens and ponds so that resources would cascade from one to the next with benefits that flowed freely between cultivated and wild parts of the system.
These civilizations never sought to destroy natural ecosystems, nor to get closer to them. Their goal was to live in harmony with them in such a way that they could provide for themselves.
▲ How Edenicity harmonizes with nature
This I think, is the correct goal for Edenicity: not to get closer to nature, but to live in harmony with nature.
To see how this is done, have a look at the Reference Design from the program notes or on edenicity.com.
In that reference design, most people live in four storey row houses around garden parks. This would be Zone 2 in permaculture. Now bear in mind that this is a three dimensional design, there are trees in the system, and one might have direct access to them from balconies and windows in the upper floors. And honestly, I'll leave the details of how to do that to qualified architects!
But the point is that you can, in this design, just open a window or a door wherever you live and experience the richness of nature with all of your senses.
Now, if it's your first time looking at the reference design, you might notice that there are rooftop gardens, and those would be rather mechanized, high-density aquaponic systems. But still very green.
The thing that you won't find in the reference design that's actually quite popular among futurists, is a giant hundred storey factory farm. This is just simply impractical because it is a thousand times more expensive to build high rise infrastructure than to simply grow on the ground.
The only reason we have the rooftop gardens is because you have to put a roof up there anyway, and it might as well serve a dual purpose. And actually the garden ends up serving several additional purposes having to do with buffering heat and water flows.
Now, because those gardens are 50 times more space efficient at producing a narrow range of crops, they actually do, in a roundabout way keep most of the development low rise. The reason being that if we build too high, we don't have enough rooftop area to grow certain key crops, and end up having to expand the cultivated areas around the city, and then the city starts to get much larger.
So the most space efficient solution overall is to keep most of the development relatively low rise.
So you would be able to get outdoors without going down an elevator or getting in your car. So you step outside and you're in Zone 2, which is basically orchards and ponds, and definitely designed for aesthetics as well as efficiency. This is why Village Homes in Davis, California, where children can snack their way through the giant food gardens that surround all the houses, is the most expensive real estate per square foot that's available in that city.
Edenicity's Zone 3 farm areas and Zone 4 forest areas would just be a few minutes walk or bicycle ride from home. And outside the city is Zone 5, the wilderness. This is not a place for people to hunt or gather. That all happens in Zone 4 within city limits. Instead, this is an area where people go to restore the vast diversity that we have plundered in recent centuries. And as it recovers, we go there to learn as the vast tapestries of life begin to weave themselves back together.
We would generally reach Zone 5 by Hyperloop, and there might be some hotels in scenic locations that would be maintained as city parks. Chances are many of these would be pre existing communities that are already involved in tourism. But if they want Loop connectivity, they would certainly be subject to the asset tax that everyone in Edenicity is subject to. And onerous as that sounds, there's a lot of precedent for that. Most tourist destinations such as everywhere in Hawaii, pay an accommodations tax of up to 10.5%.
Now beyond Zone 5 are the oceans and waterways of the world. And here we have a real problem, because the world's fisheries are basically collapsing and trawlers with their massive fishing nets have cut the combined weight of all the fish in the oceans in half. So as part of its commitment to healing the earth, Edenicity franchises would refuse ocean products that are obtained in an unsustainable manner and enforced these bans and limits with criminal prosecution.
Now let's return to that bungalow dweller that we met early on in this episode.
Was it really nature that she was talking about losing touch with inside a house? I mean when she walked out and felt the grass under her feet, that had to have been cut grass, which is almost always maintained in such a way that the soil beneath it loses 99% of its biodiversity, at least compared to forest soils. And although my acquaintance hated elevators, she was car dependent. She needed a car to meet all of her basic needs, including shopping, school, visiting a doctor, a dentist, and even finding a hiking trail or a beach to hike or swim.
So imagine this instead:
You're living in a lush park just dripping with berries, nuts and garden produce. You take one to three flights of stairs (or if you're disabled, a ramp), throw open the door, and now you're fully immersed in that park. You pass through grape arbors and pergolas on your way by a natural swimming pond and head down the block.
Now if you wanted to stretch your legs, you could walk about three minutes and be in Zone 3: a broad acre crop and grazing area that surrounds your village. This is the one part of Edenicity that looks just like a normal farm: fields of grain with cattle grazing.
Walk another six minutes, and now you're in the forest. It's as wide as Central Park in New York City. And it goes on for tens of kilometers. And this is a place where you can forage for mushrooms, pick berries and wild flowers, splash in creeks and ponds, and listen to bird songs.
The fresh air and the sound of the wind in the trees is the same air that blows through your neighborhood with no cars or trucks or buses to pollute it.
And if you really want to get into the wild and experience a little bit of the danger of true biodiversity, with wolves and bears and cougars and snakes, all that is just a nine minute Hyperloop ride away.
Restoring Zone 5, wilderness and the oceans and waterways of the world, is a huge task. And I see this as a natural area for young people to become involved in habitat restoration and maybe even dismantling toxic infrastructure as part of a rite of passage.
Imagine what will come to pass when we build this.
As the forests and the plains and the oceans of the world grow ever more wild, the air at home will become ever more fresh.
When we stop trying to be closer to nature, and instead start designing our lives in harmony with it, we can breathe easier everywhere on this planet, knowing that we belong.
▲ CLOSE [music]
If you enjoyed Episode 29, please take a moment to share it with others who might enjoy it, too, using the share link in your podcast player. Please be sure to join me next time when I'll discuss what it really takes to become an adult in a sustainable world.
I’m Kev Polk, and this has been Edenicity.