Despite the insistence of the consumer society, quality of life depends upon nourishment from the environment, and not upon energy consumption.
By Nikos A. Salingaros
Published September 06, 2011
Moving towards sustainability and a greater understanding of how human life is connected to the earth's ecosystem goes beyond mechanistic notions. Totally consistent with the Greek concept of geometry underlying life, increasing evidence shows that the geometry of the natural and built environments is responsible, to a large extent, for the quality of human life.
Certain geometrical characteristics of natural and living structures, such as fractal scaling, mathematical symmetries leading to complex coherence, and structural invariants (patterns) found in disparate forms seem to be responsible for a fundamental healing connection between the body and its environment. In what is known as the "biophilic effect", we draw emotional nourishment from structures that follow general biological rules of composition.
It is perhaps not surprising that natural environments should nourish us, but what about artificial environments: the environments we build? Artificial environments that are the most healing emotionally and physiologically embody traditional design techniques that themselves arose from imitating nature.
Superficial imitation does not provide the intended effect: a form (artifact, building, urban space, or city region) has to be built according to principles that derive from the organization of living matter.
This discovery opens up two major topics of application: (1) validation of older design techniques as ultimately healing, and which should not be rejected in the interest of achieving novelty; and (2) applications of the biophilic effect on the urban scale to restructure alien urban environments.
We are thus led to a re-appreciation of traditional-scale urban fabric, with the added benefit of energy sustainability, since traditional methods of design and planning necessarily had to be sustainable.
Applying geometrical rules of design as derived from the latest scientific findings about biological structure promises a new beginning for architecture and urbanism.
We have been led to accept the myth that quality of life increases proportionally to energy consumption. While true for the onset of industrialization, this correlation is also responsible for an unsustainable global economy. The basic premise is a falsehood that has to be disputed before it can be reversed.
Early technological advances permitted an improvement in the quality of life, but this does not mean that increased happiness comes from wasting energy and natural resources.
Unfortunately, major world industries have developed that work upon encouraging consumers to waste energy. The throwaway culture of shoddy consumer materials in the wealthy countries destroys the environment of the developing countries that produce all that stuff.
For example, we have developed an entire mythology (motion pictures, literature) around the pleasures of driving a car. There is undeniably a remarkable freedom in having a private vehicle that moves us fast on the surface of the earth, and this is a liberating notion in many ways, but it is a terribly expensive action as far as energy wastage is concerned.
As much of the world's economy entails companies that extract, process, distribute, and sell petroleum products, it has made sense for them to create a car-oriented society through movies, media, and other components of manufactured culture.
Just note that at the speed of a moving vehicle, biophilic effects from the environment diminish to the point of insignificance, except when one is actually driving through wooded countryside.
Put very simply, quality of life depends upon nourishment from the environment, and not upon energy consumption. The consumer society has done a very thorough job of convincing people the world over of an imaginary link between quality of life and energy wastage. That conjectured relation has only served the large part of our economy that runs upon energy production and consumption.
Because of both the size of those related industries, and the present state of globalization, it is going to be very difficult to reverse the consumerist trend in the near future.
Of course, the world will be forced into a totally distinct mode overnight after an energy catastrophe (due to shortages because of exhausted supplies, military action, or disruption in delivery channels), but past experience with transient energy shortages does not seem to have taught anyone a lesson about the future.
Placing this essay in the broader evolutionary context of humans and human technology, most of the things we once thought of as solely human - tool use, language, etc. - are now seen as more common to other animals. We distinguish ourselves, however, in being able to influence our environment on a massive scale.
At the very heart of this process is the building of settlements, which uses up tremendous resources. The unsustainable system now in place in much of the world, supported by a consumerist philosophy and taken for granted, is that development and Gross Domestic Product depend upon increasing energy use. This system has a runaway positive feedback, and nature cannot possibly support it.
The discussion of geometry becomes central, because life that depends upon the geometry of the environment is an emergent system property, which is qualitative, not quantitative. Certainly, Biophilia is essentially structural - it arises out of complex structures involving fractals, networks, etc. - but it is not easily quantifiable.
Hence what is basically a totally rational phenomenon requires very different tools for understanding and managing, and necessitates those who wish to stop the older, unsustainable paradigm to develop a different worldview. The profoundly simplistic limitations of our present thinking neglect and consequently help destroy the complex emergent properties that allow life to flourish in the built environment.
The global industrial system has learned the appeal of sustainability, and it is applying clever and deceptive techniques in order to perpetuate its world business. Perhaps the greatest threat faced by human-scale urbanism today lies in the nightmarish "sustainable" cities and urban projects proposed and built by fashionable architects.
The global system has picked up the sustainable vocabulary and has used it to re-package their extraordinarily expensive and fundamentally unsustainable products (glass and steel towers, monstrous buildings, industrial-style cities in the middle of nowhere) as "sustainable". The trick consists of using some technological gimmicks, and coming up with numbers for energy saved through having some solar panels and double glazing on the buildings' glass façades.
This is a fundamental deception, since the city or country that buys one of these eco-monsters becomes totally dependent on the consumerist energy system.
As the companies selling such industrial products are the major multinationals tied into the power of Western states, it is extremely difficult to counter the publicity effort that is devoted to their promotion. Also, the selling occurs at the highest government levels, far above any decision-making that can be influenced by ordinary citizens. The client nation blindly trusts the giant Western-based multinationals to deliver a sustainable product because that is what the media promises.
At the same time, the controlled media acting as a mouthpiece for the multinationals praise the client nation for its "great foresight" and its adoption of "progressive urbanism". Since national pride is involved here, even the most blatant urban disaster will not be discussed openly. Maybe we will read of a new city that proved to be totally dysfunctional, or too expensive to run, after several decades have passed, but certainly not sooner.
Centralized governments have always been enamored of large-scale industrial solutions, industrial cities, massive five-year building plans, etc. Despite all good intentions, such projects proved to be totally dehumanizing in the past because they ignored human psychological needs and the human scale. Such initiatives are now reappearing as globalist urban applications, but with a newly-polished high-tech glamour.
Many persons continue to support such projects, seeing them as proof that technology can solve every social problem. Old-style centralized industrialization is made toxic, however, by skewing everything towards the very largest scale.
By contrast, genuine sustainability uses small-scale technology linked in an essential manner to traditional socio-geometric patterns that connect a society to itself and to its place (Salingaros, 2010).
A genuinely sustainable approach enjoys the natural kinship of bottom-up entrepreneurial initiatives such as the Grameen Bank. We begin from the smallest scale and move up through increasing scales. A peer-to-peer network empowers the individual to work and act within a society in a way that benefits that society (Bauwens, 2005).
Just as in any stable complex system, different layers of functionality are added on increasingly larger scales, yet the working whole requires a balance of mechanisms acting on all scales, interacting horizontally as well as vertically.
The new techno-cities, tragically, are designed to work on only one scale - the largest scale designed as an abstract sculpture on a fashionable architect's drawing table - in which case they may not work at all.
I feel the need to raise an alarm against a group of fashionable architect/urbanists that are misusing science to advance their own agenda. Supported by our top schools and the media, this group embodies a superficial grasp of popular science, using words such as fractals, complexity, emergence, etc., and claims to offer a variety of sustainable urbanism.
Ordinary people are attracted to these false promises, because they cannot tell the difference between true and bogus science. Nevertheless, the purpose of this movement is entirely self-serving.
In presentations that read very similarly to what could be one of my own texts, this group's discussions also introduce the keywords: "diversity", "unpredictability", "accidental", "indeterminacy", "optimism", and "opportunity"...
Couched under a pseudo-scientific cover, however, the message says that there is no science of urbanism and no shared framework for effective design; therefore we have to build according to randomness. This assertion is as false as it is irresponsible.
What this group proposes is the continuation of inhuman ego-based experiments on the lives of human beings begun by industrial urban typologies used as agents of social engineering. As if its theoretical statements were not alarming enough, this group's marketing ploy always concludes by recommending its handful of favorite "star" architects for large urban projects.
It would be a tremendous move forward if people could be divested of their indoctrination that quality of life necessitates high energy expenditure. To replace the pleasures of daily living now provided through wasting energy resources, I propose a return to emotional nourishment from the built environment. This is very easy to accomplish, and only requires re-structuring our built environment to provide biophilic information.
At the same time, the proposed restructuring necessitates a shift away from the energivorous car-oriented society towards a human-scaled urban fabric. Already in the past several decades, cities are embarking upon such a program of restructuring. Their motivation has been to save energy. What I am proposing is altogether different and goes much further towards improving the quality of life.
Biophilic nourishment is a positive experience that can substitute for giving up the thrills of riding around in cars at high speed. I believe that this is the crucial factor that can make a new sustainable society possible. The vast majority of people will not give up their present wasteful lifestyle out of an altruistic desire to save their planet.
We know from history that populations would rather proceed towards their own extinction rather than engage in self-sacrifice for the common good. What I'm proposing is different: you simply get your pleasure from a different source.
And it works: environmental nourishment from Biophilia has sustained and satisfied people for hundreds of millennia up until the twentieth century. We are not talking about an untried experiment, but a return to something that we know works.
Lest critics raise objections about returning to the past, I would advise them not to worry. We are going to apply all our technological knowledge to solve problems that were present in urban living in previous times. Clean technology replaces dirty technology.
There is no going back to a pre-industrial past of rampant disease unless it is brought on by economic collapse due to energy depletion. All we are recovering through Biophilia is the positive emotional experience, not the old problems in coping with everyday existence that we have now bypassed.
Acknowledgment: This is a third extract from an article originally published in the Athens Dialogues E-Journal, Harvard University's Center for Hellenic Studies, October 2010; and reprinted by The Permaculture Research Institute, October 2010.
Bauwens, Michel 2005. "P2P and Human Evolution: Peer to peer as the premise of a new mode of civilization" http://www.networkcultures.org/weblog/archives/P2P_essay.pdf.
Salingaros, Nikos A. 2010. "Peer-to-Peer Themes and Urban Priorities for the Self-organizing Society", P2PFoundation, 26 April 2010 http://p2pfoundation.net/Peer-to-PeerThemesandUrbanPrioritiesfortheSelf-organizingSociety.