Sunday, March 26, 2017

Rescuing Los Angeles

"How can we use our hard wiring to communicate to the herd that it is time to veer off from a race towards the cliff’s edge which most don’t yet see?"

  In the concrete desert that is downtown Los Angeles we were blessed to find a green oasis at the corner of Vermont and 1st Avenues known as Los Angeles Eco-Village.

LAEV has taken a two-block area of random residents and small storefront businesses, alleys and churches and transformed it into a traffic-calmed and car-restricted promenade with fruit trees, mosaic tables and cob benches built around larger canopy trees, verge gardens, interior courtyards and attractive outdoor classrooms. It has created attractive residences affordable to lower income people, stores and kiosks selling products and services made or provided by neighbors. It has converted large apartment complexes to low income, ethnically diverse cooperative housing, and is transforming four-plex garages to 3 or 4 story mixed use development with retail, offices, and super affordable “tiny” housing, with small ecological footprint and no parking. It created California's first bicycle kitchen (starting literally from the kitchen in an apartment house) — a way of cooperatively building, sharing and maintaining bicycles and the skill-set that goes with that.

A recent purchase of an abandoned building and vacant lot on the corner of Vermont Avenue will allow them to create People Street Plaza with two parklets and an enclosed bike corral, a solar arbor for small electric neighborhood plug-in vehicles and pedal hybrids, plus metered parking and expanded city repair functions at two intersections.

Next year the ecovillage plans to eliminate sidewalks and parking lanes on north side of White House Place and install an urban organic working farm/food forest.  In the future they would like to acquire 5 four-plexed apartment houses on White House Place to ensure permanent affordability for 80 to 120% of poverty-level income if existing/future qualifying residents will commit to going car-free within a specified time, and providing convenient car share options.  They would power these new homes by installing neighborhood solar PV over the school parking lot. Beyond 2030, when the parking lot is no longer needed, they would create an urban farm.

More ambitious, and requiring more city approvals, are plans to acquire and retire the auto repair shops, raze them and reopen the concreted-over hot springs, Bimini Baths, that were overtaken by sprawl and pavement almost a century earlier. They'd like to open a center for therapeutic and recreation and to offer affordable housing for healers (so they can charge lower rates for lower income residents). They'd like to bring back the trolley service to the tracks that used to carry bath patrons to and from other parts of the city. For the immediate future, a vegan café and outdoor garden is planned to replace the auto repair shops. 

Much of this will be accomplished by local residents, using a Cooperative Resources & Services Project (CRSP) Ecological Revolving Loan Fund (ELF) which has the potential to generate about $2.5 million every three to six month period.

Imagine, for a moment, all cities transformed from the bottom up in this fashion. LAEV does not plan to produce all its own food, water, power and other needs from within its two-block area, but it could. Instead, it encourages doing some of that while also participating in cooperatives that join together the products and services of other parts of the city. Once upon a time the founder of permaculture, Bill Mollison, was asked how cities could become sustainable. He responded that it was only by providing for all their needs within their boundaries. Los Angeles, even now, at 5000 persons per square mile, could do this. But then, like LAEV, it would need to take another step and begin the process of producing food, fiber and energy while progressively withdrawing carbon from the atmosphere.

Ecovillages similar to LAEV — The Farm, Earthaven, Findhorn, ZEGG and Seiben Linden — have already demonstrated their ability to net sequester more than their own carbon in order to reverse climate change, even while implementing the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals, using a combination of for-profit and non-profit social enterprises and a holistic, deliberative approach. Over the past few years they have risen still another step and are embarked, with Global Ecovillage Network, Gaia University and Gaia Education, upon a process of building curricula and the cadre of trained instructors that will carry the work to a global scale. This core idea, brought by ecovillages at the cutting edge of an historic shift, is part of the British Commonwealth's new Regenerative Development to Reverse Climate Change strategy announced at COP-22. It is also allied with the Chinese Two Mountain policy we described here in December.

Ecovillages are like a shadow world government. They are not top-down electoral, C3I or Deep State puppeteers; they are grass roots, spontaneous, semi-autonomous networked infiltrators. Their weapons are not Death Stars or enslaving financial schemes but viral memes spread by new media, art and gardening. They run on the energy and creativity of youth. They are a bullet train on a return track back out of the Anthropocene.

What is needed now, today, is exactly that sort of low cost, rapidly deployed, hugely scalable approach to reversing human misery, ecological destruction and climate change that will find apolitical social acceptance, quickly, without the requirement of carbon taxes or offset markets that only serve to line the pockets of the obscenely obtuse. Indeed, to scale quickly, it should use tested, off-the-shelf technology, be antifragile, employ lots of young entrepreneurs, and provide a sensible return benefit for those in the older generations who hazard their limited time and resources to assist.

The adoption process for carbon-sequestering economies could benefit from the ideas Malcolm Gladwell expressed in The Tipping Point: How Small Things Make a Difference (2000). Gladwell argued that the ability of viruses (whether diseases or ideas) to spread quickly, and universally, depends on their ability to be attractive and sympathetic. They need to be able to cross cultures, genders, age groups, and races.

Gladwell pointed to three elements that cause epidemics to spread, and said these same elements are fundamental to any large-scale social change. They are:
  1. The Law of the Few — some people spread disease (and ideas) better than others.
  2. The Stickiness Factor — the potency of viruses (or ideas and actions) to become universal. Ideas and actions to reverse climate change need to continue evolving and draw in people from around the world. The greater context of our climate dilemma suggests that if a favorable human tipping point is to occur, it needs to be able to cross cultures and to be sticky across all those differences.
  3. The Power of Context — the conditions under which the change is considered tend to either reinforce the change or thwart its spread. Commitment is not enough. The committed have to act, and share their commitment with others.
If a cultural tipping point is required, the tools most associated with cultural evolution should be employed. These include artistic movements (visual arts, performance, music, etc.), fashion (attraction to styles), and celebrity endorsements, among others. Humans evolved as herd animals and we constantly signal to each other our affiliations, tastes and choices. Tapping into this natural process allows memes to propagate when stickiness and context cohere.

This leads us to an examination of the concept of style. What is it in the human genome that makes us such dedicated followers of fashion? Likely it is hard wired by an evolutionary choice our species made several million years back. We hairless apes are more like army ants, gray wolves, dolphins, lions, mongooses and spotted hyenas than jaguars, frogs and horse flies. We are pack hunters.

Herd behavior has a defensive purpose, too. Witness zebras crossing a river full of crocodiles or a young buffalo calf being stalked by wolves. Some will be picked off, but most will survive.

We continuously signal to others in our herd that we are with them. We are part. We are in this tribe. We seek tribe approval, acceptance, respect. We may do this the way birds do, with colorful plumage, or the way horses do, with speed and agility. A necktie or a pants suit are forms of that signaling. A sports car is another.

How can we use our hard wiring to communicate to the herd that it is time to veer off from a race towards the cliff’s edge that most of our group most don’t yet see?

We need to make the change in direction fashionable.

For many if not most, the need to survive is ever present. To Westerners captured by the meme of money, their fragility can be measured by the number of digits left of the decimal point in their bank accounts, real estate valuations or securities portfolios, or by the (thin) thread of an enduring job with health benefits. Standing at the edge of the Seneca Cliff, all of those indica are profoundly perilous routes forward.

Is it possible to break the fantasy of citizens of industrialized countries — that our jobs can continue to provide a magic elixir to meet our needs and debts? Difficult. Not impossible, just difficult.

Greed and familiarity cushion against sensibility. In other cultures, survival is bound by the timing and amount of rains needed for good crops, or the attractiveness of a female to acquire a supportive mate, or the fighting skills and tools for a warrior to dominate. But these also have a dark side.

Given how essential to survival rain, a mate, or fighting skills may be, they are also powerful drivers of aberrant behavior, like the magical belief that if we dance and pray that rain will come, or that anyone who can act the part of ruthless, selfish seducer can attract wealth, power or handsome mates.

That is all going to change, and quickly. Either that or we will all be extinct, and soon. If you want to get in on the change sooner, and avoid the hardship of late adoption, look into joining an ecovillage.

There is one trend afoot that few have seemed to notice. In the two-thirds world trade and commerce have always been dominated by nimble opportunists who see niches, swoop in and exploit them, and move on when the niche is no longer productive. This independent spirit runs against the grain of wage slavery and so harsh sanctions like the withholding of health care and the destruction of public education have been used like cudgels to beat “employees” back into their roles as cogs in the machine. So it was that Columbus destroyed the unsuited-as-slaves Taino and Arawak, or Francisco de Toledo instituted the mita system to compel Quechua and Yanacona encomienda to work the silver mines of Potosí.

Today, the tuned-in, spirited youth force of the world has undergone an evolutionary shift from encomiendista to free-agent. They want to be social impact entrepreneurs, not cubicle rats — blackmail-style benefits be damned. That instinctual shift provides the fuel to ignite the ecovillage revolution.

This post is part of an ongoing series we're calling The Power Zone Manifesto. We post to The Great Change on Sunday mornings and 24 to 48 hours earlier for the benefit of donors to our Patreon page.


Ian Graham said...

Free-agent entrepreneurs, social activists, permaculture emergency technicians: all flavours of what I see and hear among permaculture design course grads, like recently at Belize. But they aren't empowered to be effective, in fact probably fair to say the cultured numbs and disempowers them. For good reason, TPTB don't want an uprising to get too well established, witness how Occupy! was taken down across the US.
Check out Wade Hunter, an entrepreneur training personal empowerment in the tradition of Napoleon Hill, Marshall Thurber, Bucky Fuller, who I met on my way home from Punta Gordo. His training company, The New Game, is just about this. It should be incorporated in all permaculture design course curricula.

Joe said...

LAEV does not plan to produce all its own food, water, power and other needs from within its two-block area, but it could...Los Angeles, even now, at 5000 persons per square mile, could do this.

Oh no! An otherwise sensible person who has imbibed the "urban farming" kool-aid.

As Carl Sagan once noted, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence". I am skeptical that anyone can provide all their needs from 5,576 square feet anywhere, much less in a place where rainfall is 15 inches per year. Please provide links to your "extraordinary evidence", especially how LAEV is going to produce its own "neighborhood solar PV" modules.

I know that a time is soon coming when people will need to secure almost all of their needs from within their own community, but even if you somehow show that it is possible at 5,000 people per square mile in a near desert, wouldn't it be far easier to abandon the LA concrete jungle and move all those city folk to a rural region with adequate rainfall and far more space per person?

Albert Bates said...

Joe - there are no shortage of proofs. Consider, for instance, how many Chinese cities fed themselves before the Second World War, including from plants and animals raised on junks in the harbors. Consider Havana and Santiago during the Special Period. Or see a more modern approach in Australia:

Don Stewart said...

I am all in favor of doing whatever it is one can do. Including small things such as stopping the generation of greenhouse gases with one’s suburban gardening practices. However, if we are talking about ‘saving’ Los Angeles or even ‘feeding America’ or ‘feeding the world’, then perhaps a sober assessment is in order.

It turns out there are two recently published books which I believe give us plenty of food for thought. The first is Prosperous Homesteading by Greg Jeffers:
'Some elements initially surprise, especially those that haven’t received much thought. These include the motto “No farming!”: farming is a business that feeds strangers in exchange for money; a homestead is a family that feeds itself; these concerns are orthogonal. Another element that may be hard to grasp is the entire financial scheme that allows homesteaders to prosper: no debt; no monthly bills; no insurance; only the bare essentials as far as unproductive assets such as a house or a car; few assets at risk.’

The second book is The Unsettlers: In Search of the Good Life in Today’s America, by Mark Sundeen. Sundeen’s book explores the facets of living a simple life in Montana, Missouri, and Detroit, along with a glimpse into The Farm in Tennessee. The families that Sundeen spends time with all have their own approach and definition of ‘the good life’, ranging from rural farmers to homesteaders to urban farmers. The homesteaders are living in a very rural (and, therefore, cheap) part of Missouri, do not use electricity, do not own or ordinarily use a car, and are largely self-sufficient. Sundeen explores the tension between true off-grid living and ‘living in a village with an internet connection’. Because they are living in such extreme poverty, they have little social life. When the husband is asked what he would do if he found that ‘the hammer is already down’, and the world cannot be saved, he responds that he would go get a cabin by the sea in Maine and just watch the world sink. In other words, the hard work and isolation are not worth it if they can’t change the course of the world.

In Detroit we meet a young black woman horticulturist and a young white man urban farmer who eventually marry and begin a reverse commute to a farm in rural Michigan. The woman wants her children to be able to walk without fear and sleep with open windows at night. The woman had worked at Greenfield Village, a restoration funded by the Fords and the Firestones. But she learns quickly that ‘Greenfield Village is not even fake’. It is a theme park whose theme is work. ‘After the initial thrill of media acclaim, the couple became irritated by film crews arriving unannounced and demanding interviews. They were exhausted by young dreamers bending their ear about some pie in the sky that would revitalize Detroit, a scheme that generally involved more social networking and fundraising than crouching over crops like a peasant. A lot of people like the social element of being in the city, being able to go to the art gallery or museum, Olivia said, But that’s kind of some bull, because if you’re farming, you don’t have time to go to the art gallery or the museum.'

In Montana we learn about the trials and tribulations of trying to produce food to feed the world which is not toxic and does not take more energy to produce it than the calories it provides. ‘The off-grid commuter was just a suburbanite with a longer driveway.’ And it turns out that the very industrial processes of distribution and marketing are the keys to making money.

I will offer that the homesteads of Jeffers and Sarah and Ethan in Missouri demand less work than the farms in Detroit and Montana. It’s one thing to grow your own food…it’s something else to be able to afford the investment and expenses and work required to distribute and market what you have grown.

Don Stewart said...

I submitted a comment about forest fires previously. I don't know if you read it, but you didn't comment.

My Spring Nature Conservancy magazine just arrived, and the article is dedicated to restoring southern Blue Ridge forests through the use of fire. To set the stage, we know that Gatlinburg, TN burned this last fall, and Chuck Marsh told me that Earthhaven came within an hour of burning. You have held up The Farm and Earthhaven as models of forestry. But my question is 'Is the forestry they are practicing really fire adapted?' The Nature Conservancy says that fires occurred every 5 to 7 years. Radiocarbon dating of charcoal indicates that fire became more prevalent a thousand years ago when humans moved into the southeastern forests. With the suppression of fires in the last century, the oaks and hickories have begun to die out, replaced by maples and other less valuable trees. The denser growth also reduces the availability of wildlife in the forest for humans.

So...besides the basic question of increasing forests and producing biochar and fostering ecovillages, it seems that we must confront the likelihood of more fires and a reduced capacity to control the fires. In short, we need to steer the forests back to where they were 500 years ago: producers of abundant game and nuts and easily traversed by humans and resistant to catastrophic fires.

As I read the Nature Conservancy magazine about their efforts, it occurs to me that it will be very hard to do enough, fast enough.

Don Stewart

Reverse Engineer said...

Los Angeles is low on my list of places worth saving.




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