Big Idea: Ecocity Economics
By Richard Register /
Mar 25, 2011

The ongoing economic crisis that began with the unraveling of wildly inflated real estate prices and the Wall Street derivatives bubble in 2007 and the crash into near depression in October of 2008 resulted in trillions of dollars of public bail out money for banks and other institutions around the world. Other banks and businesses collapsed or went bankrupt and many individuals lost their homes and/or their jobs.

Talk of recovery and getting back to where we were with continued world economic GDP growth, back to “normal,” based on improving stock prices and with a stabilizing of real estate prices in the United States averaging almost 40% less than what they were in 2007 is highly unlikely to be correct. That is because of the high unemployment rates, lost value in retirements, far more expensive costs for education and health insurance than before, cuts in public services from closed swimming pools, parks and libraries, streets wearing out without maintenance, immense debts and deficits in all but two state governments in the United States and hundreds of cities and so on and on. Our police force here in Oakland, California where I live, for example, a city with an extraordinarily high murder rate, has had to fire 80 police officers five months ago due to enormous city government deficits. The same is the situation for the State of California where Jerry Brown the new Governor (who was also governor 30 years ago) is cutting deeply into almost all services the state provides and has proposed the elimination of all California Redevelopment Agencies in an effort to balance the budget.

But there is a much more profound reason not to expect “full recovery” of the economy if, as almost always implied, that means a return to all those comfortable economic indicators of on-going growth. In this regard there are two big problems: 1.) infinite growth in a finite environment is impossible and 2.) you have to know what to build to thrive and all evidence is that humanity has a very ill-considered and dangerous notion of what to build at this time in history.

There is a third big problem too: in the United States where the current economic debacle originated, the Administration of Barak Obama has brought on board many of the exact same deregulating economists that caused the crash in the first place. They encouraged wildly irresponsible speculation that enriched a very few, including themselves personally, while impoverishing hundreds of millions not just in the United States but around the world. Among the economics powers is Timothy Geithner, present Secretary of the Treasury and former Director of the New York Federal Reserve in which position he helped engineer the bailout of investment bank Goldman Sachs. Gene Sperling is the present Director of the White House National Economic Council, the same position he held under Clinton when he was promoting deregulation that led to the real estate and market collapse. Afterward, going over to the business side, he was paid $480,051 as Director of the Philadelphia Stock exchange and was paid $250,000 for economic briefings to hedge funds Brevan Howard Asset Management LLP and Sterling Stamos Capiral Management. More anti-regulation legislation was engineered by the Obama advisor Hank Paulson, also a former CEO of Goldman Sachs, and another US Secretary of Treasury who also used that position during the Clinton Administration to dismantle the banking regulations of the Franklin Roosevelt Administration (the Glass Steagall Act in particular) and in many other ways to encourage high risk speculation for short term enrichment of a very few. Paulson has also used his insider knowledge to amass a fortune of over $700 million for himself personally while moving back and forth between government and the businesses government is supposed to regulate.

In other words, for 1.) the fact of the ultimate limits to growth, for 2.) not knowing what we need to build for a healthy future and for 3.) the position of the super rich business leaders who were largely responsible for the Great Downturn affecting the whole world at the head of US economic policy making, we need a whole new approach to economics.

Infinite growth is impossible

Our newsletter readers all know that infinite growth in a limited environment is impossible so I’ll mention here, without trying to prove the case, an interesting fact: life depends on energy, 99.97% of which arrives in the thin zone of life on Earth from the sun. Only .025% oozes up from the crust as geothermal energy and the thin slice of .005% comes from tidal energy, cosmic rays, meteor friction with the air and most interestingly I think, residual heat from the originally birth of the planet in accumulating bombardments from asteroids, comets and space dust.

Life, of course, also depends on climate, local or regional soils and/or waters and the interaction between living organisms. Carrying capacity in the case of human presence on Earth has components that multiply one another in a manner similar to that identified by Paul Ehrlich in his famous formula: I = PAT, meaning Impact (on the environment and everything in it) is equal to Population multiplied times Affluence (or consumption) times particular Technology. One technology may be almost totally benign, solar energy for example, and another definitely risky, such as nuclear with its unsolved waste problems and necessity for massive insurance and investment subsidies.

In my opinion Ehrlich is missing the pervasive and powerful role of the built environment or the “land use and infrastructure” pattern our cities, towns and villages embody physically, the anatomy of our cities, towns and villages. Our collective constructed habitat is a gigantic creation at the foundation of human economy and, you might say, a meta-product made up of many other products. The city orders and supports – or confounds – practically all other of our technologies and ways of living in their efficiencies – or inefficiencies. For example, once you build the city designed for the convenience of cars you are stuck for decades with dependence on cars and all their supporting technologies, space and energy demands, climate change and violent accidents. Build a city for people mainly on foot and the technologies that work with that built community include solar electric power plants, bicycles and streetcars and their supporting technologies. I sometimes contract “land use” and “infrastructure” into the one physical thing itself, as “landustructure,” the physical built community itself. Thus I have propose I = PLAT. Coincidentally, “plat” in its common usage means the layout of a set of uses on the land. Impact = Population times the kind of Landustructure they occupy times level of Affluence times particular Technologies.

Presently the “ecological footprint,” a concept that was detailed first in the doctoral dissertation of Mathis Wackernagle working with Bill Reese at the University of British Columbia in 1994, is probably the best measure of human overshoot. Wackernagle as President of Oakland’s Global Footprint Network, with offices also in Zurich and Brussels, keeps track of the worsening degree of overshoot for our whole planet, which at this point is consuming more than 30% more resources than can be utilized and stored by the Earth’s biological systems powered by sun, chlorophyll and soil. In economics terms this might be called using up the planet’s capital while maxing out humanity’s income allotment all at the same time, digging rapidly into the geological energy savings account, the only one that exists. The fossil fuel savings account was accumulated over close to 100 million years during the Carboniferous geological period ending a little less than 300 million years ago. The accumulation was slow – especially relative to the rate at which we are using it up now: at around 500,000 years worth of deposition literally burned up every year. Basically, the biofuels that compete for soil and sun with food and wood, which provides also building materials and paper plus maintains most terrestrial biodiversity, is the only source of energy we can depend on other than direct renewable solar energy and its derivatives, wind and hydropower, and a tiny fraction from geothermal.

To get a sense of the implications of the problem of overshoot in terms of metals and non-metallic minerals, it is instructive to step back and contemplate a powerful image of our situation from the point of view of minerals already mined out of the surface of the earth. The McGraw Hill text book by Fellmann, Getis and Getis, Human Geography – Landscape of Human Activities, Tenth Edition, provides a perspective on that situation that should concern us all.

The extractive industries depend on the exploitation of minerals unevenly distributed in amounts and concentrations determined by past geologic events, not by contemporary market demand. In physically workable and economically usable deposits, minerals constitute only a tiny fraction of the earth’s crust – far les than 1%. That industrialization has proceeded so rapidly and so cheaply is the direct result of an earlier ready availability of rich and accessible deposits of the requisite materials. Economies grew fat by skimming the cream. It has been suggested that should some catastrophe occur to return human cultural levels to a pre-agricultural state, it would be extremely unlikely that humankind ever again could move along the road of industrialization with the resources available for its use. (2008, p. 282)

The fact is that massive quantities of metals and other minerals are in the form people can use, are in circulation right now, in many cases in near 100% pure form. And many of these can be recycled essentially forever. But, the amount per person on average has to be divided by the population of humanity and some is inevitably lost through rust or dispersion to concentrations unrecoverable by any economically available means. As energy resources become more expensive economic availability becomes much more problematic. I call this “the Rust Factor” and it needs to be seen as compounding the problems of “Peak Oil.”

In other words, far from an imminent return to normal growth that politicians and economists are claiming will materialize in a few years if not sooner, what we are more likely to see is better revealed by thinkers who for a long time now have been trying to asses society’s longer term trajectory on the planet. Jonas Salk discussed in his book “Survival of the Wisest” in 1972 the graphing of growth curves representing living organisms in finite environments, including us on Earth.

“S” curve, bell curve, collapse or just permanent downturn?

In broadest terms, Salk compares human impacts on the planet to any living organism living and reproducing in a limited environment with a steady supply of incoming nutrient. A petri dish with a colony of bacteria, for example, starts out with plenty of food per individual bacterium and increases population geometrically as represented by a line on a graph as it reproduces, producing an upwardly accelerating “C” shaped curve. At a certain point resources become more scarce per organism and the environment becomes crowded. It starts filling up with the contamination of the bacteria’s waste. At a certain point the upward “C” shape begins to decelerate in its growth rate and begins to describe an “S” shape. Where the line changes its direction representing accelerating growth to decelerating growth we have the “point of inflection.” The line at that point instead of curving ever more toward the vertical begins to curve to the right and toward the horizontal. Salk suggests that the wise person realizes from an assessment of the major needs and resources of living organisms and the realities of their environment that we need to slow growth before arriving at the point of inflection else we suffer, shall we say, swimming in a crowded pool of scarce food and our own organic and industrial excrement. In theory we could arrive at a high top population in miserable circumstances as the line on the graph takes a horizontal path to the right indefinitely.

In 1972 when his book was published and I had the pleasure of talking with him about it we may well have been at approximately his point of inflection. Obviously we didn’t act as wisely as he might have wanted. It’s one thing for literally billions of people to have been saved from polio with a shot of Salk’s vaccine. It’s quite another for those same to achieve wisdom.

In reality, the “S” curve doesn’t end there in a horizontal trajectory since the steady availability of incoming nutrient – and on the whole Earth 99.97% of that income would be the steady flow of solar energy – may be there, but when maximum population arrives it is not just that the environment is polluted and crowded but that pathologies that began multiplying as the curve approached the top produce conditions in the organisms themselves and in the contaminated soup of their environment such as diseases. And those conditions of “diseases” have their own growth curves and negative cumulative effects that may not kick in until well over the maximum number of our subject organisms are alive and the “S” curve line is topped out and tending toward the horizontal. In the case of us humans, dangerous psychological and social/political reactions are guaranteed as well as actual diseases. This has been historically demonstrated in cases of civilizations that have collapsed throughout history and even prehistory.

But as far as human society is concerned, by far the greatest source of energy in use and which we depend on almost absolutely is not of the steadily arriving solar variety, but fossil fuel reserves topping out sometime right about now. Add that to the delayed action of those independent “diseases” just mentioned that exert their degenerating effect after the ”S” curve tries to top out and move horizontally. Students and Paul Reveres of Peak Oil have been warning us for more than a decade now that peak oil production portends a great deal of dislocation not only by prices rising as oil becomes scarce, as it must sometime as a finite resource, but also because of the degree to which it has permeated our economy in the form of plastics and hundreds of chemicals that turn up in a vast number of products. They suggest a bell curve, rather than an “S” curve, one that rounds over the top and heads down with a rapid drop. Richard Duncan a systems engineer studying Peak Oil has pointed out, however, that peak oil per person was actually passed in 1979 with no dire crisis after that point. Some of the early 2000s peak oil authors expected the beginning of the collapse of absolute quantity of consumption of oil in the 2007-2010 period and perhaps they were right or perhaps society is at a kind of ragged top “plateau” that will slide more slowly away with oil use tapering off more gradually as other energy systems come on line. The only trouble is, other source of energy from the Earth’s surface are either almost as scarce as oil, natural gas in particular, or even worse in terms of climate changing CO2 and pollution levels, coal in particular, or more expensive in terms of energy, technology and clean up needed in procurement, such as shale oil, tar sands and nuclear. The Great Downturn, the Great Recession, the Crash of 2008 or whatever it becomes known as eventually, illustrates that policies (government deregulation on one hand and the personal policies of greed in high investment and speculative circles) and societal factors that are not tracking resources that closely can have immense impacts as well. But perhaps what is important to say at this juncture is simply that even if slow in terms of years the patterns are getting clear in terms of decades and in those time periods our children’s lives are deeply implicated by the slowdown in energy available in a world getting crowded and heating up.

Leaders and the public show few signs we know what to build

It’s not quite that we never ask what to build, it is that we are afraid to look at the question in its fullest implications. Around the world we have no problem in 2011 with looking into building the green building. We can all imagine that – at least for those who are interested. But to inquire into building the right kind of city or town, that affects us all in our neighborhoods, in our everyday transportation situation and in many other aspects of our life styles – that is another thing entirely. I’ll explain this in a little more detail but first I want the reader to look at my chart entitled “The Illustrated Realconomics Chart.”

Studying it you will see solar energy providing almost all the energy available on the planet, both as a flow of arriving energy and as a store in the form of the fossil fuels. The chart shows our dependence on the layer of chlorophyll and soil for making almost all of our useful products, prominently featuring our built environment, as, after all, the built environment is the largest of our creations. You will also see I have placed human economics completely within nature’s economy and have shown the speculators’ economy as a black hole of profit that, whenever economic “bubbles” develop, accrues as gambling winnings for the very few but has zero product or service to the larger economy – and often impoverishes millions of people when the bubble bursts, taking down many unlucky speculators as well.

I have noticed that even high finance economists who deal in derivatives and buy and sell disastrously overpriced subprime mortgages occasionally use the term “the real economy.” Alerted to what it might be and investigating some I concluded they were talking about the economy not of speculative finance that has no physical product or service but the economy that does, the economy of material, energy, strategic thinking and good hard work. Still, that economy may operate as both capitalist and socialist economists have advocated for exploitive drawdown of nature’s resources and thus it is not the real real economics because it is lost in its delusional fantasy of infinite growth and independence from nature. Therefore I’m suggesting constructing an economics that understands that edge between nature’s economics and ours, that thin green and brown line of chlorophyll above and soil below. I’m suggesting we give it a new name to distinguish it even from the human economics seen as the economists’ “real economics” plus “nature’s economics” in their dynamic interrelation – another kind of economics. I’m suggesting “realconomics

The Illustrated Realconomics Chart

Economist speak of “real” economics as the economics of productivity, consumption and recycling utilizing Earth’s resources and whatever energy is available to power the system. They do this because often the manipulations of finance and speculation dominates much of economic theory, circulating largely around stock markets and their regulation – or deregulation.

The Realconomics Chart puts forward the idea that there is a natural economics based on the Earth’s minerals and solar energy income translated into useable food and fuel by photosynthesis in plants. Products of photosynthesis are stored in soil fertility, wood, fruits and vegetables and animal protoplasm and some is stored in the Earth’s sediments as fossil fuels.

The human economy taps into the larger natural economy and has its own particular dynamics having to do with resources, invention, capital, labor, planning, interest manipulation, supply of currency, rules of contract and so on.

A subsection of the chart is speculative economics, the economics of physically non-productive investment and return – or betting for win or loss – that may or may not facilitate the larger human economy. The human economy is dependent on the materials and energy flows of the natural economy. And if we can devise an economics that effectively integrates nature’s economics and human economics in one total economics system, I’m proposing calling it “realconomics.” Only if the system includes all crucial parts could it be considered “real,” thus the proposed name.

Chlorophyll in plants creates a thin membrane on the Earth’s surface that transforms solar to chemical energy for practically all organic functions of living things. The chemical residues of the work of this membrane are geologically stored as a one-time supply of energy in the fossil fuels.

To continue with looking at the built environment, when one goes from making buildings more land-conserving and energy-conserving and designed for more positive environmental impact in general, then on to making the city greener, we suddenly get into the issues of changing neighborhoods, confronting automobile dependence, the need to remove buildings if they promote automobile dependence or if they are in the way of restoring ecologically healthy functions such as through opening up small waterways, shorelines, ridgelines and so on. Ultimately the very uncomfortable issue comes up for many people that living in a multi-unit apartment or condominium without a car in a mixed-use center is far healthier in ecological, climate and resource terms than living in a house with a car in a low density residential area. Oddly, living in a house in a high density mixed use neighborhood might be the worst of all since it keeps out many people who could be leading “greener” lives there.

Our leaders and the vast majority, even of climate scientists and environmentalists are averse to looking this problem in the eye. It seems far too daunting but look we must or we simply will not solve the major crises of our times. The Obama Administration in my country doesn’t know what to build. To use an Oakland example again, the Federal Government has funded a “shovel ready” project as part of its economic recovery program to drill a fourth bore through the hills to the east of Oakland and Berkeley – at a cost of $420 million (before cost overrides – who knows what the final figure will be!). This will make four tunnels where there are now three linking the San Francisco Bay Area with the suburbs on the far side of the hills – for cars. This is precisely the wrong time in history to be promoting and serving yet more cars and sprawl development. A half billion dollars could do good instead of damage if it were for ecocity development near an existing rail station or serving development in vitality centers that could be moving toward ecocity design and development.

In simplest terms, we have built a city for cars instead of people. We have done this almost as if we are in automatic, that is, just reacting our way into the future picking up on whatever short-term technological future plops in our laps. Cars have been fun but… Interestingly the world automobile means something that moves (is mobile) on its own (auto). It is automatic in a sense too, just like our reflexive adopting of the automobile with little thought to its implications. The city built for the automobile, we could call the autocity (as compared with the ecocity), meaning not only built for the car but built almost automatically without serious forethought. If you want to know how we got here to climate change, rapid resource depletion, paving farmland and species extinctions, that’s the lion’s share of the explanation.

Even most conscientious promoters of renewable energy, energy conservation, recycling and non-toxics have failed to notice that slice of history, don’t get it. They almost uniformly promote subsidizing electric cars and putting solar electric panels on suburban houses which works to maintain the suburbs we should be moving away from, continues covering farms and killing people and animals in tens of millions of accidents around the world every year. Jobs supporting expansion or perpetuation of the car/sprawl/paving/massively energy consuming autocity shouldn’t be seen as green jobs at all. Their “greenness” is more than nullified by supporting exactly the wrong infrastructure. However if we do know what to build – the ecocity of compact, highly diverse centers from neighborhood centers and district centers to revitalized downtowns as complete small cities in their own right – then we will see people have learned “what to build.” Then we discover we have a much broader definition of “green jobs” which includes the iron worker constructing apartment housing in an area where the preexisting imbalance is toward the commercial, the waitress providing café services, for example, to people who arrive there on foot and so on. Almost any job, in the right location is a green job, whereas jobs in a location supporting the disastrous urban infrastructure that dominates the world and causes many of its worst problems today, is anything but a green job.

So what should we be building? Not only the more compact neighborhood, district and city centers of real diversity but seen in the thoroughly “ecocity” way with high levels of integration, with features and detailing appropriate to the location. The basic principle here is so important it should be seen as one of the foundation stones of realconomics. That is that complex living systems, such as our own human bodies, function best as lean, three-dimensionally arranged entities. Similarly, the healthy city functions best as a lean, energy and land conserving entity that is also essentially three dimensional, not flat and spread out like modern, high energy and high land consuming suburbia. This is because lines of supply and communications are much shorter and quicker when they cross over and below one another instead of scattering out away from one another over large areas. Architect/philosopher Paolo Soleri put forward this paragraph’s observations in the early 1960s – they’ll be relevant and instructional forever.

This notion of “leanness” through compact complexity, that is, great variety well organized close together, is not only what is conventionally considered more “efficient” it also means there is more energy and material, land and time left over after essential maintenance activity to relish for relaxing, more time and energy for creative personal or collective activity. The city of health and options is the one that doesn’t trap the person on his or her way to work in a traffic jam or force the consumption of 500 gallons of gasoline a year, typical in the United States, but let’s the “commuter” get to work by just bicycling or walking a short distance. The three-dimensional lay out of the city is that basic – and such physical organization is common to all complex living things including the living (as compared to dying or killing) city.

If we can understand the city as a three-dimensional living organism and see that as a major insight for a realconomics of true sustainability we can suddenly see that many architectural features of clusters of buildings appear as if by magic from that realization. Suddenly bridges between buildings roof-to-roof or terrace-to-terrace and mid block ground level passageways such as cozy alleys, sky lit hallways and grand gallerias, make perfect sense for high pedestrian permeability. Rooftop gardens, shops and restaurants linked by those bridges and rooftop parks and promenades, multi-story solar greenhouses and exterior glass elevators all become part of the rich architectural palate people have to date barely noticed. You, dear readers are the exception of course, hearing this list of ecocity features from my many times over the years. When we actually try them out and put them all together I believe we’ll only then realize what a powerful and healthy finally complete design for living actually is.

Getting building

Now that we have a better idea of what to build, how to get started? Ecovillages in the country have the opportunity to express these ecocity features and take the lead if they feature the kind of elements mentioned in the paragraph immediately above. They would have to involve bridge-linked buildings of probably seven or more stories to fully illustrate full-bodied ecocity design and would have to relate to adjacent agriculture and natural habitat restoration. Attached food producing solar greenhouses ascending part of the sunny side: absolutely necessary.

Such projects could grow up from a neighborhood centers too. This in the ecocity movement we call an “integral project” or an “ecocity fractal,” which is a fraction of what could be a whole ecocity with all essential parts and functions – housing, work, commerce, learning, farming, restoration of nature and connection to other centers with bicycle or rail routes – present and well arranged. Understanding the “full spectrum” or “complete” center in this way informs us about the components of the ecocity and fills out the notion of what we need to build for a truly sustainable natural and human economics, my proposed realconomics.

“Knowing what to build” means we also know that there can be plenty of work for everyone. The ecocity foundation of realconomics provides a very full and vibrant economy even if it is an economy of a city shrinking in footprint and total size, that is, actual size in terms of volume of physical built infrastructure for any particular population, and shrinking in terms of quantity of land, materials and energy needed for its construction and maintenance. This is a paper about economics of an ecological nature so it is highly relevant to point out that the Great Depression was put to an end by Keynesian economics in the hands of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Administration between 1932 and 1945. Struggling to figure out what to do about more than two years of a depression getting deeper and deeper when the new president took over, Roosevelt began experimenting with dozens of initiatives to enliven the economy. Things actually got worse for a while. His administration followed the deficit spending formula of John Maynard Keynes putting everyone to work on clearly defined projects in not only new infrastructure construction – airports, hospitals, bridges, highways, dams, post offices, libraries and so on – but ecological projects such as reforestation and soil reclamation. Conservative capitalists, whose hands-off government philosophy let economic conditions sink rapidly from the Crash of 1929 until the Roosevelt years, considered the new president leading the country to socialism and many did not believe in his attempted solutions. While good projects were happening, they weren’t being embraced completely whole-heartedly. But when the Second World War started, there was no doubt at all what needed to be built, for better or worse, and the whole country went into gear behind the war effort. Deficit spending, targeted for a particular outcome – victory over fascism and slavery – was seen as a strategic investment in future prosperity and tapping into that prosperity at a later time to pay down the expenses of winning the war.

It was perhaps the largest experiment in application of an economic theory with the most clear lesson – if anyone bothers to pay attention – that we’ve had in a century or more or maybe ever. What it means for us now is that if we could decide we need to build the ecocity civilization and invest in it vigorously we could win this war against our planet by turning it around and making it instead a war to save our planet. What we most need then is realconomics and its physical manifestation: ecocities.

The Big Five

Alas, that is not enough! Our cities, towns and villages are collectively the largest thing our species creates but then we are too large ourselves. That is, human population is enormous and without massive use of energy and material, probably even in the context of an ecocity future, it would in all likelihood be far more than a healthy ecology of real diversity on the planet could tolerate. I see, in fact, five big items we have to deal with, all of which most people are very resistant to facing. Much less do many seem to be able to summons the courage, commitment and personal energy to engage realistically with good hard work. To me they seem to be lacking a clear idea of what is needed and an outline of how to proceed. Maybe that would summons the courage and hard work. This leads to the following thinking:

Axiom 1.

The City is the engine of prosperity.

This is the gigantic economics lesson I’ve been writing about to this point in this paper. And the ecocity is the type of city that contributes to soil and biodiversity buildup as well as prosperity while demonstrating how the city can grow smaller in land and energy consumption. By the way, in a world stuffed with computers that get more valuable as they get smaller per function, this should sound about as normal as things can get, and a very good idea.

Axiom 2.

The Big Five

If we wish to build a healthy economics, there are “Five Big Areas of Action” we need to engage which society has been avoiding, of which the built environment is one. They are:

Physical actions

1. Deal with overpopulation

2. Reshape the agriculture/diet nexus to be far less land and energy consuming

3. Build ecocities

Detailing the above two not already covered in this paper is material for another paper.

But we can see at a glance that in dealing with religious dogma, family habits, old age security, education and reproductive rights for women and business prejudices for maximum growth we are up against a very large problem in trying to solve the population problem. Yet we need to do this and can, reducing human numbers gradually, steadily and peacefully to a level where each of us in some future time can thrive in a world where nature thrives too. In addition it should be stressed that the idea of infinite growth translates into an economics absurdity that the larger the population on a limited planet the more for each of us, “the more of us the larger our slice of the pie.” (Could economists really mean this?!) The reverse is closer to the truth, “the fewer of us the more for each,” down to at least, enough of us to provide for the variety of experience for genuinely full, creative, compassionate lives. We need in other words workers, organizers of work, teachers, artists and scientists for insight and knowledge, children for inspiration and continuity of our species into the future and so on, population enough for a truly prosperous human presence. We don’t know the best approximate number because we have yet to honestly address the situation, but seven going on nine or ten billion?!…

Regarding the agricultural/diet nexus we have another enormous problem that starts with modern agriculture taking up so much land. This is the only enterprise humanity engages in that is on a scale comparable to building cities, towns and villages. Agriculture is different in that it takes place in a thin layer in two dimensions rather than in three-dimensional volume. Even before its ecologically damaging chemicals and massive demand for energy is factored in, it eliminates vast areas of natural habitat that is needed if we want long-term healthy biodiversity on this planet. The answer is largely to move toward organic agriculture and move away from diets heavy in meats.

Reshaping the autocity impacts agriculture in two very significant ways right of the top. First, reversing sprawl would liberate millions of acres presently covered in concrete and asphalt for the cars, and second, more and more farmland is being appropriated for fueling cars instead of feeding people. Says Lester Brown, if all the farmland in the United States were dedicated to biofuel production for the country’s cars, there would be none left for food production for people. In fact there would not be even enough for all the cars. That’s how much energy a 3,000 pound object accelerating to and decelerating from ten times the speed of a person consumes. Another way of looking at it, filling the typical car’s gas tank once takes about as much agricultural land for biofuel production as feeding a person for an entire year.

Mental actions among the Big Five

4. Act on generosity, invest in ecological health and peace via the above three

This means paying taxes, seriously graduated income taxes, and being, as all democracies are rightly said to be required to be, ever vigilant to prevent corruption in both government and business. The percept also has another dimension: that we try much harder to put an end to violent conflict as in the stealing and killing in war and wasting of vast treasure in preparing for war. That is the absolute antithesis of generosity.

5. Education strongly emphasizing the above four

Axiom 3.

If we want to actually engage building the physical solutions to our growing economic debacle it is instructive to notice what I call the “Three Sacred Cows” of US Capitalism. If you want to build anything you have to go to where the money actually is. And where it actually is happens to be is 1.) hoarded by the super rich, 2.) locked into military spending and 3.) invested in the (presently very badly) built environment. Those are the three big areas of the resource called money and areas constantly generating more and more waste that instead could be turned to our salvation in crucial times.

About the first, which has everything to do with generosity, #4. among the Five Big Ones, it’s hard to tax the rich with all their power to buy politicians. But by law or persuasion and conscience of the sort that occasionally produces real philanthropy, it must be done if we have any hope of building our way out of economic, I’d say, realconomic collapse. Serious graduated income tax with no loopholes would solve many problems. Unfortunately people are too categorically fixated – dare we not call them stupid – to lump the super rich in with the middle class and the financially more challenged under the slogan “no more taxes!” This is a cry that makes no sense at all when a few million people have thousands of times what those billions on the lower rungs of society have. The question is tax whom? If the vast majority can’t figure out that tax breaks for the rich are not in their interest, one is tempted to say they are fools enough to deserve financial ruin. Except that at this point in history when we need to spend money on building right to solve deadly problems, the children of those who can’t figure out this simple math, all the other species, and no doubt even the children of the rich, are the ones who will suffer catastrophically.

The military budget – colossal! We all know we need to work on conflict resolution, honest diplomacy and cooperation instead of lying for advantage and using secrecy and competition to the point of killing one another and overrunning each other’s countries. We all know it would help getting to know and appreciate one another better. I won’t undertake here how to do that, but I will suggest that lower budgets for “defense” would release salvation-scale investments if we knew what to build, and I’m claiming this paper knows what to build.

As to the automobile city infrastructure getting in the way, remember the misallocation of money for the Caldecott Tunnel Fourth Bore and go from there: not just billions but trillions of dollars for building nothing less that a thriving future as an alternative to collapse.

Axiom 4. Work Hard – China is proving it works.

That is the last very basic word of guidance and requirement in my realconomics list, as if it really needed to be said, though people don’t like thinking about this one, another very big issue, either. But hard work really works.

Richard Register can be reached at

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