Orson Wells on Sprawl and Time-Space Compression

I've become totally hooked on Orson Wells' Mercury Theatre On The Air, after discovering a trove of original broadcast on MP3.  The radio show ran from 1938-40 on CBS and CBC.  They became famous when their production of "War of the Worlds" convinced listeners that the Earth (or at least New York State) was under attack by fire breathing Martians.

On a recent bus ride back from Washington, I stumbled on this great clip of Orson Wells (of Citizen Kane fame) and Walter Hughston summing up both the perils of automobile centred urbanization and the concept of time-space compression.  It's from a 1939 broadcast of the novel “The Magnificent Ambersons.”

To set the scene: Orson Wells – the young George who doesn't want to work -- is courting Lucy, the daughter of Mr. Eugene Morgen (Walter Huston) the automobile tycoon.  But George's technique could use some work...

Even though the novel  won the Pulitzer Prize in 1919,  “The Ambersons”  isn't the best of the Mercury productions – for entertainment value try "The Count of Monte Cristo." But the backdrop of the melodrama is a creepy and ambiguous portrait of 20th C. urbanization and the rise of the automobile.

An uneasy prescience comes through as you listen to both Wells and Tarkington dwell on the same issues that preoccupy us now: sprawl, the seeming shrinking significance of physical distance, and the impact that cars are having on our cities and our culture.   (Ask Steven Hawking, and he would tell you that Wells' was right about alien invasions as well.)

Thanks to Kim Scarborough  for maintaining the fantastic Mercury Theatre website.

Living Cities for An Empathic Civilization: an Urban Take of Jeremy Rifkin

I just finished listening to a podcast of Jeremy Rifkin discussing his new book  "The Empathic Civilization" on CBC Radio's excellent "Ideas" program [download].  It's a sweeping intellectual quest of a book that sets out an escape route from the corner we are busy painting ourselves into.

Rifkin's project is to put the evolution of an increasingly global and empathetic consciousness in the ring with the rapdily worsening problem of climate change.  His cliff hanger ending to the first in a series of  Huffington Post blog post sums it up this way: "Can we reach biosphere consciousness and global empathy in time to avert planetary collapse?"

I like the question. But what I like even better is his way of asking it.   The building blocks of the book are journeys through biology, history, and the impact of energy and communication technology on human consciousness and society. He argues that we are in the early stages of a radical transition.  What he leaves out is cities – the places where that transition will be felt and shaped most directly.

Wet-Wired For Empathy
Human's are wet-wired for empathy.  That is to say that understanding the feelings of other people and species is built into the tissue of our brains.  Inspired by that relatively recent discovery, Rifkin sets out a fundamental revision of human history.  Our focus on violence, war and conquest comes from a fascination with the novel, not the norm.  More important than wars and conquests are the ways that new energy technologies and communications revolutions intersect.

He argues that every great shift – from agricultural civilization right up to the industrial age – have been based on pairing of energy sources and the methods of communication needed to manage them.  Print technology, for example, emerged as part of the apparatus needed to manage the industrial era.  But at the same time, print – especially in the form of national newspapers – formed the basis for nationalism by making it possible for people to know things about and imagine their place in a national community much larger than their day to day experiences. (A very good book on that come out in 1983.)

A Change in Energy + Technology  =  A Change in Consciousness + Social Organizations

And that brings us to today, where somewhere a grade school student in Germany is playing around with Google Earth on a computer powered by solar panels on her roof. That's my example, but Rifkin argues that that pairing of interconnected decentralized energy and communication systems will transform both human consciousness and social institutions.

Rather than the Enlightenment idea that we are all rational, utilitarian individuals, the radically connected societies created by new technologies make possible a dramatic drawing together by extending our capacity for empathy further than ever before.  Empathy not just for other people, but for the natural world that  makes possible life on earth.

At the same time, the redrawn energy grid will make old national identities and institutions increasingly irrelevant. Instead, collaborative regional and continental webs of governance, similar to those evolving in the EU, will take their place. "In this new era of distributed energy, governing institutions will more resemble the workings of the ecosystems they manage."

Another Utopia?
I love it. Yes, the Euro is in trouble. Yes, he makes generalizations about hunter-gatherer societies that I am sure some anthropologist and historian would say are just plain silly. And yes, this all sounds a bit utopic. The Enlightenment also had its share of utopic thinkers, let's not forget. What we got in the end was the liberal economic theory, Francis Fukuyama, Stephen Harper, and the Tea Party. Hardly reason for hope.

But I love it because positive visions of the future are in short supply these days, and unlike the utopias of Thomas Moore or Thoreau, this one seems to go with the technological spirit of the times, not against it. Unlike Friedman or Fukuyama, he isn't arguing that liberal democracy and globalization will somehow make us all the same and equal. If anything, Rifkin's argument is about how we might better understand other peoples' – and other species' – uniqueness and difference.

Empathic Cities
What is Google Earth doing to your brain and your sense of place in the world?  How does slapping some solar on your roof change the nature of the social contract that holds the modern state together?

Or should I say: "How *could* they influence those things?" Because if there is one thing that irks me about Rifkin's argument, it is that he makes it all seems so inevitable. Let's be real, the transition to biospheric politics and ecological empathy isn't going to happen just because everyone is using the internet and uses green electricity. Virtual communities are fine, but they need to lead to real action.  Changes in consciousness need to get expressed in real changes in the way we use space and energy. And that is where cities come in.

More than any other scale, cities are where people are creating and experience those shifts. Look at the spread of ideas from transport-oriented-development, to BIXI, or from urban agriculture to decentralized energy grids. Look at the way those ideas have spread through online networks, to then be adopted and developed by local communities. Communities, often very small initally, who pushed to have them integrated into their local landscapes. Look at the amazing human and ecological diversity that make up our urban populations. Put all  those together and you get a pretty good example of the kind of empathetic ecosystem Rifkin discusses, as well as the daily struggles that make them possible.

By focusing on governing institutions that mirror the natural systems they are embedded in, Rifkin is tapping into a rapidly developing conversation about what cities are and what they could be (see Brugmann and Sassen for example, or the Living Cities Challenge).

Urban spaces have the ability to make us deeply aware of our connections to the natural world.  But they have historically been designed to do justs the opposite. For Rifkin we are living through a shift from Homo Sapien to Homo Empathicus. That may be, but we have already become Homo Urbanus.  The way citizens, communities, and governments shape the nature of our cities (all puns intended) is going to have a big influence on if, when, and how that transition takes place.

Cómo construir una economía 'verde' - Krugman en Español

Last weeked Paul Krugman published an excellent feature in the New York Times magazine on environmental economics and the possiblity (and necessity) of building a green economy.

I posted some comments earlier that started off an interesting dicsussion.  Today the article has come out in a Spanish translation in Spain's El Pais newspaper (thnx Lunatrix!). (A great paper that is also the source of many of my favourite climate comix). Read more...

Green: Within Our Grasp (Interview with the Montreal Gazette)

Last week I had a great talk with Peggy Curran of the Montreal Gazette. A big chunk of it  has just came out in an Earth Day feature in today's paper.

Curran was looking for an alternative angle to post-Copenhagen dissapointment and has profiled a variety of environmental activists and researchers. The focus is on ways that people can engage and work around some of the road-blocks and dead ends that we've seen so far. A few excerpts are below, you can find the full article here.
"Everybody deserves a 20-minute neighbourhood," said Aylett. "It's not reasonable to have to get in your car and drive several miles to get a litre of milk." He dreams of more densely-packed districts where houses are smaller and more efficient and it's possible to walk to the park, take in a movie or go to the local arena by foot, bike or public transit within 20 minutes.

"Instead of talking about the exception which proves the rules, we should be creating the exception that changes the rules," he said. "All too often, someone's smart idea gets blocked because of rules which were designed for a different era. Ask a city why you can't put up solar panels on your roof and they'll cite a bylaw written to prevent homeowners from putting an extra storey on their triplex." That doesn't mean individuals are off the hook in Aylett's campaign to change the way we live. Far from it.

"Growing tomatoes in your yard is not going to make a huge difference to greenhouse gas emissions or global food security. But it will change how you see the issues.

"Doing something concrete is the foundation for community engagement.

Photograph by: Adrian Dennis/ AFP / Getty Images, AFP / Getty Images


Irresistible Economics of Building a Green Economy: Paul Krugman on Climate Change and Risk

Paul Krugman has an excellent piece coming out in this weekend's NYT Magazine.  Krugman, also a Professor of Economics at Princeton University, is a clear and thoughtful writer on American politics.  I enjoy reading him regardless of what his current topic is (see his blog).

The current piece covers the state of climate science, looks at where current policies are likely to get us, and goes over the (small) costs of actually doing things right. 

Joe Romm, another heavy hitter in the world of climate commentary, has provided a good summary of the piece with links to relevant background material.

Here are a few short excerpts to get you started:
"We know how to limit greenhouse-gas emissions. We have a good sense of the costs — and they’re manageable. All we need now is the political will."

"You might think that this uncertainty weakens the case for action, but it actually strengthens it. As Harvard’s Martin Weitzman has argued in several influential papers, if there is a significant chance of utter catastrophe, that chance — rather than what is most likely to happen — should dominate cost-benefit calculations. And utter catastrophe does look like a realistic possibility, even if it is not the most likely outcome."

"Stern’s moral argument for loving unborn generations as we love ourselves may be too strong, but there’s a compelling case to be made that public policy should take a much longer view than private markets. Even more important, the policy-ramp prescriptions seem far too much like conducting a very risky experiment with the whole planet. Nordhaus’s preferred policy, for example, would stabilize the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at a level about twice its preindustrial average. In his model, this would have only modest effects on global welfare; but how confident can we be of that? How sure are we that this kind of change in the environment would not lead to catastrophe? Not sure enough, I’d say, particularly because, as noted above, climate modelers have sharply raised their estimates of future warming in just the last couple of years.So what I end up with is basically Martin Weitzman’s argument: it’s the nonnegligible probability of utter disaster that should dominate our policy analysis. And that argues for aggressive moves to curb emissions, soon…."

(Photograph by Yoshikazu Nema; Artwork by Yuken Teruya, NYT)

Alex in Washington DC, April 14th

I'm going to be in Washington, DC for a few days starting April 14th  for the annual Association of American Geographers conference.  I know there are a few readers out there from the DC area.  If you'd like to meet for drinks while I'm in town send me an e-mail.  I'm also always happy to present on my work and would be glad to fit in a few more talks if I can schedule them.

You can see what I'll be talking about at the AAG here.  Don't let the "grad student speak" scare you off. The presentation will be a snapshot of 3 years of municipal sustainability research that I've been doing in South Africa and the United States. Read more...

Canada: The Schizophrenic Approach to Environmental Policy

Details of last month's budget bill and our new approach to auto emissions are now out, and  it's clear that Canada's Conservatives are continuing their whishy-washy but effective attack on our environmental policies and programs.  The government has announced that it will be following the USA in implementing a national policy based on California Auto emissions standards. This just months after the Environment Minister ridiculed Quebec for adopting identical standards. Overall though, that's a good thing and not a surprise.

What is a surprise is that it will be effectively canning the ecoENERGY home retrofit program, and will savage our national Environmental Impact Assessment Process.   No new applications will be accepted for ecoEnergy's $5,000 grants.  Despite adding an extra $80million for the program just weeks ago, the government is arguing that there is only enough money to cover homeowners already enrolled in the project. I hope we see some scrutiny of those numbers over the next few days.

But regardless, scrapping the program wastes a fantastic opportunity to make necessary common-sense home efficiency measures affordable to average Canadians.  It's not the first time though.  One of the first things that the Conservatives did when they first got into office in 2006 was to scrap a similar Liberal program, starting with funds earmarked for low-income families.  They later brought the program back, with a lower budget and no provisions to help poorer Canadian (who can't afford the upfront costs of renovations) access the money.

But what is happenning to EIAs is worse.  In the last 24 hours it has become public that the government plans to decimate the environmental impact assessment process.  The Globe has the deails here.  The thing that is most disturbing to me though is the way in which all this is being done.  Since when is a budget the proper vehicle  to push through this type of change?  The government knows full well that the other parties don't want to trigger an election and they are using the budget to force completely undemocratic changes to government policies. 

I'd say that even if we've got serious fiscal and environmental deficits, Canada's most worrying deficit is a democratic one.


This is a blog for news and views on the future of sustainable cites. A major revamp is in the works. Until then I am keeping this version up as an archive of my past writing.

You can expect occasional updates, but not with the same frequency as in the past.

You can also find my writing on urban redesign and sustainability in ReNew Canada, The Mark, Sustainable Cities Canada, WorldChanging, and other more specialized academic publications.

Info on my consulting work, c.v. and current research focus is all here.

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