Designing Sustainable Communities
Thoughts on a Much-Abused Subject
© 2007 Bradford Hatcher
The word “sustainability,” if it is to have a long and useful life, needs to be properly defined. I would suggest that this be cast in terms of indefinite longevity. As it is commonly used today it is little more than a weasel word, emptied of all real meaning by abuse. "Sustain" is not the same word as "continue". The wino will continue to drink his gallon of wine a day; our government continues to bankrupt our grandchildren. Neither of these behaviors can be sustained. To sustain means to uphold from below, and so to maintain the basis upon which things are supported. An unsustainable behavior leads, by definition, to the extinction of that behavior. Hitting bottom and a need for complete reorganization is the consequence.
In current use the term "sustainable" is a rubber check. Economists speak of the "need" for sustained growth in finite contexts. Corporate public relations speaks of sustainable petrochemistry. A classic case of abuse is that of Congress, with timber industry encouragement, turning the phrase "sustainable yield" into the legalese "sustained yield," thus making it easy for the Forest Service (with timber industry educations) to interpret this as "a non-diminishing flow of commodity outputs." This was some impressive slight of hand.
As many visionaries and progressives pat themselves on the backs for doing the "sustainable behavior" that is in fact little more than 20% less unsustainable, I fear we are raising the bar just high enough to trip over. It is not justice that will be coming our way when this behavior ends. If we run at full speed into a wall or over a cliff, this is not justice, it is stupidity, and then the behavior is extinguished. A Native American tradition advised looking ahead to the seventh generation from now for the proper measure to our present actions. While this idea has merit, the order of magnitude is no longer sufficient to envision the consequences of our misbehavior. Both the United States and the industrial revolution, for instance, have managed to "continue" this long, while seven more generations of "more" is extremely unlikely. Seven generations may be a good first look, test, or stretch, but I would submit that sustainable should not refer to less than a ten-thousand year time horizon.
I suggest ten thousand years for four reasons: 1) It is close to the age of "civilization" and so calls into question the manner in which we feed, clothe, shelter, breed, govern and even bury ourselves. 2) It is the average age of a sere, the average span of the progress of an ecological niche from lifeless mineral to climax ecosystem, during which the physical niche itself adapts to the life that inhabits it. 3) It is roughly the average half-life of our toxic waste, or perhaps an average recovery period for our biosphere, time needed to rebuild the topsoil and recharge the great aquifers. And 4) It is the period during which, under the relatively benign stewardship of Native Americans, more than half of the species of North American megafauna went extinct.
The good news is that after these last ten thousand years, and for the first time, we have a repertoire of survival skills sufficient to comprehend and design human and community scale living environments that begin to approach sustainability "writ large." We may even be able to incorporate education, astronomy, travel and digital audio into our lifestyles and still do no more real damage to the planet than the Kalahari Bushmen. We owe this to our recent access to a broad diversity of more and less imperfect cultures and to the need to open our minds to what they have to tell us. And, even though a vastly over-populated and largely parasitic humanity still has most of its many harsh lessons to learn, this does not prevent us from planting more sustainable cultures in our present soil, to flourish as the unsustainable ones die out and make room and mulch. By definition, this will happen, eventually to all unsustainable behavior, with or without us. Yes - until we solve the larger problems of our shortsightedness and impatience, this work towards sustainability will seem much like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. But do we have something better to do? We green designers seem to have the full force of human arrogance and ignorance arrayed against us, collapsing our best ideas and projects. This makes us wax philosophical, and set down ideas instead of actual buildings and villages. Maybe in the process we can pass along some ideas that work to our heirs and survivors, who will already have learned plenty from us about what fails to work. Maybe at least we are sending our messages through time in this way, to archaeologists poking through our ruins, pleading with them to know that not all of us were pigs.
I want to offer a partial and growing list of things we are learning about ourselves and our world, notions that may be of use in designing more sustainable communities. This is more outline than prose. I will use “design” here in its broadest sense to include the ecological, economic, social, and political environments as well as the physical. This list might be thought of as a starter vocabulary, or a contributing sketch towards an emerging pattern language of things to keep in mind or questions to ask while organizing communities at various scales. It is in no way comprehensive or complete.
Sources of New Ideas
* Seek big picture paradigms. A number of our disciplines have by their nature worked towards a big-picture understanding of our greater contexts and who we are within these contexts: astronomy, geology, paleobiology, zoology, archaeology, history, anthropology and mythology for example. These still have a lot to teach us. A handful of new disciplines are emerging now that are marked by time horizons of ten-thousand years and greater, and so are striving for the kind of vision that we will need to understand sustainability in more honest and meaningful ways. Among these of course are genetics, ecology and its more subjective cousin, deep ecology. More recent additions include evolutionary psychology, Darwinian medicine, meme ecology, Permaculture and Holistic Resource Management. Most of these models, templates and paradigms provide great sources for missing pieces to our large and interdisciplinary sustainability puzzle.
* Problems are normally not best solved on the same level where they are created. Step up a level; get another perspective, a larger picture or a longer time horizon. But don’t neglect the small. Sometimes a seed, an insect or a microorganism can solve a big problem. Look for the patterns (fractals) repeating or expressing themselves at all scales. At least attempt to find the simple or elegant solution.
* Think between fields and disciplines, in the margins and on the edge. Look for consilience. The ideas below are separated into categories of Physical, Ecological, Economic, Social, Political and Temporal Principles. But most have some applications as analogies in other categories. How, for example, does the idea that liberty is the best teacher of duty apply to gardening in the ecological category or system design in the physical category? When we grant liberty to a garden’s life forms or a physical system we take a step back from micromanagement and allow the system more room to learn, self-design and self-regulate. We really only need to step in as pathological characteristics develop and this sets us at liberty to work on other things.
*Using appropriate technology also tends to mean humanity of scale and adaptation to place. This is not always true of central manufacture and global distribution, but all real costs should be accounted for in global budgets.
* Take the path of least resistance, but take it to the desired objective, which might mean moving upstream. Although it is often optimum to let the inertia of the universe assist us, sometimes we just need the exercise.
* Let the forces of nature do some of the work and let them do what they do best. Power is the rate at which work is done, not the amount of force applied. This has also been called Aikido engineering (David Wann). We enter the field of forces, find the center, blend at the point of harmony and add a slight twist of our own to help our obstacles to fall down.
* Make it a challenge to not do more unless it's with less and achieve the greatest effect with the least change. Give me a lever and a place to stand. (Archimedes)
* Don’t let gravity get you down. Organize processes using the natural flow of materials. Let water run downhill. Try to only move heavy things once.
* Try to think of design elements as performing multiple functions to facilitate system integration (Permaculture & boat design)
* Avoid over-design. Complex systems can be simply "seeded" with a simple sufficiency of energy, parts and repertoire of methods. Then at least to some extent they will self-design. Then we watch and study how things grow, adding just a little of this and that as it’s needed. The designer and the system both learn as the system gets organized. Buildings learn (Stuart Brand). A good example of this self-organization, even with its many inefficiencies and imperfections, is human language; a particularly bad one might be the Code of Federal Regulations.
* The flow of energy through a system acts to organize that system. (Harold Morowitz, Energy Flow in Biology). Sometimes the right inputs alone are enough to create system health and self-organization. Sometimes self-organization is prevented only by the lack of one missing, underestimated or unknown input.
* Thinking things through is different than over-design. Imagine what you want to see, but avoid micromanagement and keep diminishing returns in mind. Perfection is not to be had and imperfection instructs us.
* Look for patterns that recur at various scales of design and add details to fill in holes in existing and developing patterns. Design from pattern to detail (Permaculture). Look for fractals and li (Chinese for patterns and principles).
* Watch for emergent properties and synergies as a system integrates and self-organizes.
* Don't overdo safety margins, and never multiply them – this is a major source of our waste. Watch the math with safety factors, especially when casually presented. Simply by saying that green aspen logs weigh 60 lbs/cf instead of 40, and OSB production uses 25% of the log instead of 75, the Forest Service is able to harvest 4.5 times the board feet number that it tells the public, which is also apt to be the sustainable number.
* Make a habit of contingency planning and use the uncertainty factor as a safety margin. Our expectation that there will be techno-fixes to all of our problems, for example, really belongs in a contingency line, not in the main account as a discounted item.
* Audit "resource cycles" (e.g. the energy and nutrient cycles) carefully, with particular attention paid to income and storage capabilities because these suggest an optimum budget. Try not to destroy a thing unless you can make it. Regard the system as an organism with a budget, an economy. System inputs from the commons are only income on the small set of books. Renewable energy and resources are the only true income on all books.
* Minimize waste. Refuse, reduce, reuse, repair, recover, resell, recycle. Zero waste downstream begins with good headwater management. Buy more product and less container, or buy in reusable containers. Plugging the leaks in a system can often be a lot cheaper than purchasing and adding more input. Reintegrated waste is the same thing as income. Even pollution and landfills will one day be regarded as mines.
* In the energy cycle look for and capture local income. An import from the commons is the export of its cost. Regard timber you have planted as income, but regard timber that was already there as capital. Don’t forget geothermal, even when it’s only 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Avoid counting negawatts (conservation) as income. Remember that an energy collector that is “only half as efficient” is actually twice as efficient if it costs a fourth as much. Where are the batteries? Regard the ground as a battery and the groundwater as a sink where both heating and cooling are available. Remember that water is many times as efficient as stone in energy stored per unit of mass. Use potential energy and phase change materials. The lowest grade of energy, heat, is the easiest to capture and store with simple technology, and the easiest to reuse as space heat. And yet a watt is a watt. Use the expensive energy only where you need it. Examine both daily and seasonal periods of energy surplus – like short and long term memory, these are stored in different ways..
* In thinking one must choose between active and passive solar, much is given up. Active systems have high cost and high maintenance, passive systems force architecture to conform to a limited set of design parameters. Hybrid solar might allow a designer only a pump or a fan, and a switch on a differential thermostat, and yet open up a lot of new low cost and low maintenance possibilities, such as remote heat collection on a garden wall.
* In the nutrient cycle, income is primarily the weathering of rock plus organic imports plus the byproducts of organic soil activity, less nutrient exports such as soil erosion and animal biomass. Where are the batteries? Soil fertility, soil carbon, compost, sludge, gross biomass, etc.
* In the materials cycle, consider local inorganics as the primary income. Although wood has the lowest embodied energy of traditional building materials, good auditing should also respect its role in both energy and nutrient cycles.
* In the information cycle only useful information should be considered as income. The advice "don't be judgmental" quickly turns into lack of good judgment. Toxic ideas are real. Information storage capacity may be considered broadly as "culture." Remember that there is embedded energy in information – in a lawyer’s brief this includes the fuel for his Mercedes.
* Exports to "the commons" should be accounted as a loss to the system that the commons surround. The commons include fresh and salt-water, air, topsoil, wildlife, gene pools, habitats, and ambient light, noise and odor. Exports of toxins might best be treated as nuisances and torts instead of using regulatory micromanagement.
* Negative feedback is positive information. If we are in this for the long haul we will need to learn eventually. We need to rethink our love of denial. Why deny knowledge of what has proved inappropriate? Feedback fosters responsibility and accountability; denial fosters failure.
* The commons will be the last word in sustainability. To this end, embodied energy, water, nutrients and non-renewable materials belong in the local system budgets and ledgers, somehow more than parenthetically, as do the equally useful measures of ecological and carbon footprints.
* To keep all the cogs and wheels is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering. (Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac)
* Let selection work. Change is the rule. Adaptation is more durable than constancy. For a system to succeed it must let go of what needs to die.
* Use natural systems as models for agriculture (Permaculture, Holistic Resource Management). The biggest differences will be quantifiable as agricultural yield or system export, which must eventually find a balance with energy and nutrient income from outside of the system and/or more efficient energy and nutrient capture, storage and waste management, or the system will not be truly sustainable. Natural productivity might be the safest long-term design limit on designed system output.
* Study a few of the basics in books and with science. Learn the proper use of irrigation, fire, fallow fields and structural alterations of the soil such as plowing and ripping. Learn what the soil lacks before applying the fertilizer.
* Nichemanship. A community occupies a place and its culture is in part a response to that place. The "fitness" referred to in "survival of the fittest" refers to adaptability, not to mightiness, to domain instead of dominance.
* Biodiversity. Tree-like structures outlast pyramid-like structures, but they grow, change and make seed in the process. Disparity among points of view adds the dimension of depth. Diversity is resilience. The stability of an ecosystem is directly proportional to its diversity. Interrelationships among species, not species diversity alone, stabilize the system. Zoos and botanical gardens are diverse, but they are not ecosystems (David Holmgren). Understand that the benefits of avoiding monoculture will justify some opportunity costs.
* Ecotones, margins, interfaces or edges usually maximize diversity. To design with these is to maximize diversity. These are the places of maximum learning. Applied to social models, this implies saving a voice for the marginalized, as with proportional representation. Let a hundred flowers contend in the garden. Interdisciplinary thinking is a social counterpart.
* Ecosystem microstructure and microclimates may be enhanced to increase diversity. Use all given niche characteristics – wind, rainfall, sunlight, shade, frost, slope, aspect, drainage, soil porosity, fertility, embedded biomass, etc.
* Maximize ecosystem services such as water purification by vegetation and cooling by shade and evapotranspiration.
* Hybrid vigor takes advantage of intra-species diversity. Hybrids of differing sources of information, whether genetic or philosophical, are often the areas of greatest creativity.
* Convergence. Beings grow to become more different, not more alike, and so must improve at finding common ground. Different species or types evolved to occupy similar niches and compete for the same resources add to diversity. Use redundancies and backups like depth on an athletic team.
* Ecosystem self-organization takes time and patience. Observe as things develop. Don’t be in a hurry to throw premature solutions at the problems. Start correcting by trying to make the smallest interventions that patience will allow.
* Look for synergy and symbiosis first as the prototypical "win-win" scenarios. The process of civilization has seen humanity drift closer to parasitism, the commensal relation that gives nothing back, but this is reversible. It needs to be - the parasite might kill itself long before it kills its host when it relies on the health of its host.
* Symbiosis isn’t all. Other forms of commensalism, parasitism, predation, or competition should still be exploited, particularly where they act as selective pressures leading to greater long-term system health. Let the wolves improve the herd. When the bones are clean the flensing bugs just eat each other.
* Trophic level awareness. The levels on the food chain are marked by roughly a 90% drop in energy and nutrient conversion efficiency for each level upwards. A plot of land supporting 1000 kg of plant life might support 100 kg of herbivores but only 10 kg of carnivores. This is the most cogent argument for vegetarianism but it is mitigated by the fact that animals can graze on otherwise unproductive land.
* Seral succession. The gradual action of life upon its place suggests different needs for different stages of inhabitation. One stage builds on another. It may be appropriate to plant thorns before planting flowers. Pioneers come first. The social applications are obvious. Pioneers are supposed to be temporary, to build soil and prepare a more fertile ground. Use accelerated succession to rehabilitate damaged land. Plant some good weeds to build carbon, nitrogen and other organics, and draw the manure of grazers.
* Stable ecosystems are steady-state, not in the process of growing except as succession allows. Decomposition and decomposers ought to represent exactly half of a healthy ecosystem. While the Forest Service likes to call an old growth forest "decadent," this is in fact the sere's healthiest stage.
* Declines or even crashes of populations within a system are normal phases of development and usually represent some form of enrichment to the remainder of the system.
* Permanent agriculture (Permaculture) ultimately means no net loss of biosystem capability, which in turn means living on income or interest, not capital and loans. Soil health and genetic diversity are the banks.
* Don’t plant sissy plants only. Allowing room for adapted, hardy, self-reliant species, and even learning which weeds are most tasty to humans and their animals, will allow some more room in the day for all those more fragile and delicate wants.
* Bring back selection. The effect of premature death upon a gene pool is also a form of learning - and it's a form that humanity is in dangerous denial about. To an extent we are the victims of our own success over our old predators, even though we now have learned to prey upon each other. Failure is a necessary part of life-in-the-long-run. We need to let our failures, including the genetic ones, help us to adapt, not deny them. Cull, edit, judge the inferior to be inferior. Expect a high failure rate proportionate to the creativity of the design.
* Resilience in a system should be treated as a vital asset, not a surplus. Other names for this are hardiness, tolerance, depth, immunity, robustness, stress resistance, in a word, health. The health should still be there when the harvest is done.
* Carrying capacity. Our ability to consume seems not yet linked enough to the capacity of our support systems to provide. This is in part because we are getting inferior or delayed information about the long-term damage being done to those systems. And long-term capacity is not fixed: it diminishes with long-term damage. We have been cashing in the benefits of doubt when we should be accepting more burdens of proof..
* Cultures that have succeeded for more than a few centuries have done so in a landscape, not just in a manscape, and most often these will use a third or less of available resources. This suggests having big reservations, pun intended, about what we are doing, and not just for the scenery or even for children to learn in, but for their own sake, and for the sake of what we have missed. The forbearance that we have yet to learn will ask first of an ecosysten what is necessary and sufficient, take this with a degree of gratitude, and then assume the burden of proof for taking more than this.
* Take time to do nothing but read the landscape. Impress your clients by sitting on the land like a shaman and asking what design this land wants to dream. But never, ever tell them that you charged them for doing this.
* Never underestimate dirt. When Biosphere II went into operation and the Biospherians first sealed themselves in, my first response was: they are going to learn a lot about soils. This was 90% of the hardest lessons, including the oxygen debacle. The complexity of soil interrelationships and structures is ecology’s darkest continent.
* Recognition of the intrinsic worth of non-human life is as vital to our success as the discovery of freedom, and in most cultures is as slow to evolve. This is because they are the same attitude: live and let live, and do unto others as you would be done by. But if you wonder at the lack of the former in this culture you may be confused by a mistaken belief that this culture is really pro-freedom. Learning this is the value of liberty.
* Expect the system to start with more diversity and variety than it ends up with. As the system learns, self-organizes and integrates it may learn to do more with less. But a need for self-sufficiency may require that diversity and variety be maintained against this trend. This applies to tools and skills as well as production. Smaller areas support fewer specialists, demand more jacks-of-all-trades. This need may be met within the broader bioregion using local markets and trade. Bioregionalism will come to be better valued once the real embedded costs of goods are understood, especially in transport and handling,
* Design in terms of zones of decreasing input and management intensity in exponential relation to increases of area, as with greenhouses at the center, proceeding through garden, orchard, pasture and forest to zero-input wilderness and wild food at the edge of the manscape (Permaculture).
* Integrate instead of segregate, but respect the boundaries of individuals, families and colonies. Interdependence and independence are both just words and neither describes all the facts.
* Place design elements for maximum integration. Organize such that adjacent elements serve each other’s needs, use each other’s waste, etc. Build interrelationships as well as components (Permaculture). Get less like a flow chart and more like a fabric, and weave the loose ends back in.
* Most agriculture represents some form of ecosynthesis. But try to limit exotic species to those unable to escape the system; that is, limit to the higher input and maintenance zones.
* Natural system self-organization and self-management has a well-tested ethic all its own. Add human values with all due restraint and respect. Nature, for example, selects. Disease, predation, famine, competition, natural catastrophe, asteroid impacts, supervolcanoes and genocide have all contributed much of great value to our current genetic makeup. Unfortunately, all but two of the above are inadequate to our present culling needs and those will tend to select far too randomly.
* Take a harder look at the terms of economists and question the measures of things. Is there not more to Value, Interest, Gain, Economy, Worth, Price, Success, Discount, Standards of Living and Assets than unit quantities? A true economy should meet needs, not create them. Take back control of value and need. Above all, time is worth more than money. New values and measures are still applicable to cost-benefit and risk assessment analysis.
* Finding intrinsic value in nature, in our ecosystems, in non-human life has recently acquired new value in the growing recognition that this is a sine qua non of our survival.
* Substitute optima for maxima as system goals, and optimize for net instead of gross. Sustainable growth in finite systems is oxymoronic. To grow up or mature is to lose the growth paradigm for one of health. But bear in mind that the change to subsistence economies will have huge impacts on unearned income and speculation. This will eventually clarify the difference between corporate capitalism and free market economics. To get the most out of a system is a ratio of benefit to cost. Beyond optima there are usually diminishing returns on the way to maxima. Study the diminishing returns and value the loss of efficiency. We want best bang for the buck, not biggest boom. In surveys charting happiness against income, the greatest bang for the buck occurred just above the poverty line, where all the basic needs are just met. Beyond this, diminishing returns set in quickly, to the asymptote where billionaires were no happier than millionaires. But the hungry can know no god greater than food. (Gandhi)
* A system will have a sustainable yield that is a function of its energy and nutrient income and storage minus system losses and waste. This should be the basis of yield computations, not wishes for what it might be.
* Let markets work. The "invisible hand" of Adam Smith is not to blame for market failures, as governments and monopolies would have it. On the supply side, the big problems come from the ability to externalize costs of production to the commons and to the subsidization of scarcity. On the demand side problems come from buyers being ill- or mis-informed about both real costs and about their own needs. These are not free-market problems. Libertarians call such government and other economic meddling 'the invisible foot." Vote with your money, the rich people do.
* Expose all real costs. Look for the hidden taxes and subsidies and share this information. Do life-cycle accounting and factor in durability. Value time more than money. Shop for end use. Saving money saves impacts. Audit embodied energy.
* Internalize real costs. Don't help to subsidize scarcity or externalize costs of pollution and waste. Interest rates worked backwards against posterity is called "discounting." Think of how our discounted posterity will think of us.
* Perform life-cycle cost analysis. This often justifies greater initial expense on more durable and maintenance free systems. What good is something that pays for itself in seven years if seven years is its expected life?
* Solvency. Indebtedness might become less of a habit if we could feel more acutely the cost to our lives of the interest we pay and weigh this against the relative ease of deferring gratification. Keep the interest visible.
* Tax what you don't want, don't tax what you do want. Let governments and homeowner's associations feed on problems instead of successes - then the problems and the need for their control might start going away.
* Governments, at a minimum, double the costs of an action. You will not get your taxes back by getting "free" government money or lunches: you will only help government grow, or rather, metastasize. Pork projects cost at least double simply by being run through government channels.
* Recognize ecological limits to property rights. Substitutes must be found for regulation and perhaps one of the keys to this is to spread the notion that healthy land is more valuable. Usufruct is an ancient legal term meaning "use of the fruits" and refers to a property right limited to uses that do no long-term damage. It is another way of saying, "don't eat the seed corn." It also says that we have no right to do what we're doing to posterity.
* Plug the local economic leaks and then refill the pool. Bank at home and unite for credit. Use local currency, barter, farmers markets, time dollars, etc. Money circulating within the community gets multiplied many times over. Convince rural merchants that inflating prices due to remoteness is self-defeating for these reasons and allow them to profit a little on the higher volume. Use incentives with restraint to recruit infill business.
* Use cooperative purchasing power. In addition to getting prices closer to wholesale, informed consumption becomes more likely and the power of consumer boycott is enhanced.
* Use common facilities, tools and access to information. Two side effects of this are the training of respect for tools and the ability to purchase more durable goods. Pool the specialties within the community.
* Make the barn raising an educational seminar in construction skills and the neighbors will leave a little richer for helping, and full of homemade pie.
* Keep construction and housing affordable by constraining the growth of local regulatory obstacles and the unthinking adoption of unnecessary and excessive building codes and standards. Develop free-market affordable housing using density bonuses instead of government subsidies. Understand that bottom-rung, starter-home ownership opportunities are even more important to the affordable housing picture than rental properties. This is where most bottlenecks are, particularly in misguided communities with zoned minimum home sizes. Develop local opportunities for the cooperative purchase of building materials and sweat equity programs.
* Value is not a "given" but is created by demand. The power to create value, combined with the ability to reject artificial "needs" and shop with intelligence, represents a more powerful influence on this civilization than casting a ballot every other year.
* If you are going to make it last, you can’t cook the books. When the Federal government talks about national debt they are not including pensions and social security, numbers that are more than twice as large as what they label as debts. These promises are known as “unfunded liabilities” instead. The generation after next will need to default on these, or thin our numbers dramatically, produce soylent green, or become our slaves in order to pay for these. Most of Congress should be re-housed in a prison for complicity in this crime alone.
* Home Rule. No social task should be delegated to entities larger than necessary to do the job. This is also called devolution or subsidiary function. Command-type, top-down control is unnecessary in many natural systems, hives being a well-known example of “fast, cheap and out of control.” But obviously some things higher up the archy would help even these. We need to set the controls at their optimum levels and stop trying to micromanage from on high.
* That government is best which governs least (Thomas Paine, quoted by Jefferson and Thoreau). By the end we may find that the only entities at the highest levels of government are there for the coordination of militias, the security of the rights of the people, the self-limiting exercise of specific delegated powers and the collection, storage and dissemination of uncensored information.
* Be proactive with local legislation. If zoning laws prohibit extended families or cottage industries, change the laws and make them serve. Local governments can modify the building codes, or even adopt them to be used merely as guidelines “unless they contradict common sense.” One must remember, though, that democracy works on lowest common denominators at the local levels as well, and, if we had no need to flatter ourselves, the average IQ would be 100. You will have to sell this to fools.
* Change local zoning as needed to permit subdivision process exemptions and density bonuses for clustered development as a use by right. This will minimize infrastructure costs, provide more open space, and develop more hamlet-scale communities. Set density bonuses primarily to preserve the net economic return or net value of the property undergoing such development.
* Change local zoning to permit the assessment of residential densities and density rights in terms of pillows instead of units. Unit densities create a demand for ever-larger units, while pillow densities allow for greater socio-economic diversity, especially in family sizes and housing prices, with the same population impacts.
* Understand the mechanics of how governments grow, and practice eternal vigilance. Observe how and why enemies are made. Never trade liberty for security. Note that prohibition organizes crime.
* Sunset all laws. Put expiration dates on every ordinance and commission. Consider government to be ad hoc rather than standing, a thing upheld not by itself but by a continuous act of the governed as a response to current needs.
* Learn from this extended period of over-propagation of rules and regulations. We need fewer and simpler rules, reliably and predictably enforced, to regulate force, theft and fraud criminally and nuisance and tort civilly, but not regulate risk, morality or crimes without victims – this only obstructs our most useful learning processes.
* Hear Jefferson's call for "a revolution now and then." He used the words twenty years here, out of his belief that no generation had a right to bind another generation that was not yet represented. No institution can or should have a life of its own. The liberal institution is an oxymoron. Encrustations, boilerplate repeated mindlessly in local law, a tenured civil service, budgets that are each year based on the last - all these should be questioned without sympathy. This thing only thinks it’s alive.
* Beware of excessive agreement. Sometimes the social or peer pressure towards consensus, that regards dissent as a form of disloyalty, can be a lot more damaging to a group than lively debate or even continuous partisan strife. Many governments would benefit from an additional branch or office, popularly elected, with the sole functions of nullifying unconstitutional law, impeaching elected officials, terminating the employment of appointed officials and strict budget oversight, an anti-government as it were. Some countries have written similar ideas into their constitutions as a “Council of Censors.” The point is to always be sure that an opposing opinion or point of view is at least represented, much as the Catholic Church employs an advocatus diaboli or devil’s advocate. Similarly the body has its immune system to combat damaging growth from within.
* Retain unenumerated powers. In theory, a government has only those powers specifically delegated to it in its constitution or charter. It has no rights at all, and even its authority to make law is strictly limited to that which is both "necessary and proper" to the execution of these specified powers. What we have slipped into instead is a cancer, and much of it has metastasized out of the original growth in the commerce clause. Apply the 10th amendment locally and enforce it.
* Retain unenumerated rights. The 9th Amendment, like the 10th, has been largely ignored and avoided by the courts, but it is rich in possibility for a vigilant people. Constitutionally unenumerated rights, such as privacy, conscience, the withdrawal of consent, revolution, and lifestyle choices are all potentially accessible here without the ludicrous and circuitous route of claiming special privilege as a class of victims.
* Meritocracy. Sonny Bono was asked what his job in Congress was and he answered: "to give my constituents whatever they want." This buffoon said it all. Democracy will Never work on a large scale without a severe limitation on delegated powers. Madison was wrong here: the factions did not contain each other: they became a feeding frenzy, each one-upping the other for bigger chunks of the pig. No majority, however informed or ignorant, has any claim on our liberties, or any powers not delegated. Maybe the best way through this problem is to reinstate suffrage itself as something that everyone has an equal right to earn – at the very least by taking the time to understand the mechanics of the government that a citizen in a democracy is charged with. Incompetent voters are destructive to democracy – as much as any apathy. They will sell your rights for their privileges.
* Distinguish privilege from right. The fuzziness of this distinction allows governments at all levels to ask for surrender of rights in exchange for privileges as if they were the same medium of exchange.
* Convergent decision-making attempts to replace the adversarial system, wherein exaggerated half-truths do battle with the galvanized reactions to them. See Daniel Kemmis, Community and the Politics of Place. Some promising options are binding arbitration, mediation, consensus, consensus-less-one and extraordinary majorities. Unfortunately there is as yet no option once inside our courts. Expand the judicial options. This includes spreading the word about fully informed juries and their rights of nullification.
* Meet needs locally, shorten supply lines, support cottage industry and enhance economic diversity. One of the first things missionaries get natives to do is to buy items in cans that they already grow on their farms. They are then exploitable. Keep the outside experts outside whenever possible.
* Plan and train for community defense. This may seem premature now, but a successful community may need to defend itself against both envy and exploitation. At least start a neighborhood watch if not a militia. But psychological security, confidence and solidarity may be the only rewards. This needs to expand to the national level. The plague of standing armies must go.
* There is no group mind, or group life, consciousness or conscience. This may not be the case in a hive. The responsibility and accountability for a group's behavior can only lie solely with its individual members. As such the individual cannot be held to be subservient in sovereignty to the collective. The collective should never be considered a sovereign. Neither should a majority.
* Intra-species diversity is as important to a population as species diversity is to an ecosystem, and for the same reasons. This applies equally to both genes and memes. Ban censorship.
* Communities and even neighborhoods need to regain the authority to accept or reject members on the basis of merit and ethical character, both before and after joining and investing. Membership at community and neighborhood scales is best considered a privilege and not a right. The betrayal of trust deserves consequences. It needs to be clearly permissible to banish members from a local society and to prevent them from joining in the first place. The right to discriminate needs to be partly restored, and the potential for failure is half of the reason. Where such discrimination proves unjust, the subsequent community failures will provide needed lessons about justice.
* Expectations that a commonality of belief or a broad philosophical consensus will hold a community together should be kept to a minimum. Look for the smallest core credo or doctrine or subscription necessary to do the job. The more all encompassing and demanding that a group credo is, the sooner the social structure will collapse. Sometimes all we need to agree on is a simple ethic. The credo will also need to adapt, and its holders must be able to admit to an error – that should be part of the credo. Only the Pope can get away with pretensions to infallibility, and he gets caught too. Keep at least one guy around who you know will refuse to drink the kool-aid.
* Study the ecology of memes. Viruses such as toxic ideas, sub-routines of intolerance and legislative boilerplate, can be rooted out of a culture more easily now that we have this template.
* Authority is for authors, not for petty tyrants. “You can tell him to do it, you’re the chief.” “But if I told a man to do what he did not want to do, I would not be chief.” (from the film The Emerald Forest). Values are to morals what motivation is to discipline. The only great leading is done by example - compelling example, commanding respect, conducting affairs by doing what is conducive to desired aims and objectives. It is up to people living in simple sufficiency to demonstrate to those hungry for happiness that happiness is in fact attainable here.
* The importance of self-reliance is not in self-conscious individualism. Nor is it in the cultivation of the individual's ability to serve the collective or greater good. Self-reliance is a sine qua non in evolving the leadership we will need to get us out of the mess that our ignorance, arrogance and passivity have gotten us into. We need our best and brightest for this task. But this is still secondary to its value to the individual.
* Find the appropriate local balance between the individual and the collective, between private property and public good. There are failures everywhere to look to, bearing lots of quality information about this.
* Restoration of a work ethic is a fairly recent need, following a flood of divergent information that has left us with few certain goals and values. But such an ethic will have to accommodate a new synthesis of this new information. Old-style, mind-numbing drudgery will not do. A recalling of craftsmanship might. Give a man a fish.... But a good new work ethic will give an appropriate value to thinking cheap and lazy, for the time and energy that this mode will free up for loftier purposes.
* Liberty teaches responsibility in a way that nothing else can. Duty is the reciprocal of right, the recognition of rights in another. These cannot be recognized when our own rights are surrendered in fear. We must reclaim our rights to take risks, to risk both our lives and our sanity.
* Equal opportunity leads to unequal outcomes. We need both successes and failures as guides to what works and what doesn't. The exceptional need encouragement, not a cutting down to size. What is to be avoided is injustice, not inequality. We are not created equal.
* Provide for what we want to be but design for what we are. New disciplines called evolutionary psychology and Darwinian medicine are asking the questions: what kinds of lives are we already adapted to live? And: what has the last hundred thousand years tried to teach our gene pool? We are biologically adapted to tribal society, extended families, camp and village life, and Stone Age technology. While these are by no means our limits, findings begin to suggest that if we start to build here we build on terra firma. Another suggestion is that carrots work better than sticks.
* Cross-cultural fertilization and hybrid vigor fails in the absence of cultural differences. Xenophobia needs to be trained out of our habits.
* Optimum community size seems to be driven by levels of stressful social interaction and limited by the level at which consensual democratic decision-making no longer works. Beyond this point communities want to retain the ability to withdraw from or coalesce with larger organizations at will. Optimum community size is rarely attained under zoning law, except in certain blocks and neighborhoods. The community population size of hunter-gatherer bands and extended families is largely outlawed by zoning law. Extensive crowding is one of the novel environmental stresses that we are not yet fully adapted to. In this context, 150 has been offered as a high estimate of optimum community size. This is called Dunbar's Number. I would suggest the next lowest power of two, or 128. Participatory democracy starts to fail above this number as well. There is another number for populations of town-scale municipalities, somewhere between 500 and 750, where communities seem to become unable to build projects as communities and turn to outside experts instead.
* Although the nuclear family forms the major building block of civilization as we know it, there are reasons that nuclear families are rarely found among wild human populations with millennia of continuous history. This unit is too small for existence in isolation and too small for anything approaching a self-sufficient existence. A society built primarily of nuclear families is shattered. While these require their own private domains, a place for the next level up to gather in vital.
* First things first. A community interested in an evolving lifestyle will seek to satisfy its members "real" needs in the order of their importance. Abraham Maslow laid the groundwork for systematizing these priorities. A hungry and insecure people cannot see beyond today. Computations of the carrying capacity of an ecological system should account for this and not be based upon poverty or subsistence levels and footprints. It should count the number of people able to live healthy, good and meaningful lives.
* Developing a better appreciation for what we already have may help us with deferred gratification. So will the cultivation of gratitude and humility. And it will save us a bundle on interest. Higher purposes and higher powers help to put things in perspective, but these tend not to develop until our lower or more basic needs are met. And meeting the lower needs first will help to prevent the development of many of our neuroses.
* Understanding or at least recognizing the mechanics of suffering, craving and denial is always the first step in recovery. Keep failure visible. Outspokenness and disclosure are given a wide berth by the first amendment and there are good reasons why it was first.
* As attractive as life in community might be, the recurring needs for privacy and sanctuary must be provided for and even held to be sacred. This has been the most difficult lesson of all for some experimental communities. A pent-up need for privacy has blown many of these apart.
* Take nuisance law more seriously. Noise, light, air and water pollution are serious sources of social friction and seething neighborhood resentments. Can dog owners ever be trained to care about their neighbors?
* Clarify boundaries and limits. Life is in part an exercise in defining and constraining identity, in learning when and where to stop. This is among the first things learned in intentional community: be clear and keep things on the table. This need for clear boundaries is the most vital of all in children. Constraint of a child’s behavior to half of the infinite still leaves an infinity of options. Just give better reasons than “because I said so” and listen well to the appeals. They respond well to being treated and spoken to as humans.
* The consensual adoption of a secular ethic, without recourse to wild claims about its Heavenly Source, is the path that will lead us beyond moral relativism. We should not agree on a religion, even within the same church. But boundaries drawn clearly and simply are a different kind of blessing. If boundaries are clear enough, peer pressure alone will see to much of the needed enforcement, or else to the change or emigration.
* Sacred places in space and time should be set aside, empty at first and not filled by design. There is at present a lot of borrowing going on, especially between east and west and from much-abused Native Americans. But in this hustle and haste we are no longer allowing our sacred places to teach us their own songs and songlines.
* Vertical diversity. Unless we return to societies without medicine we will need to adapt to and design for unprecedented spectra of age distribution, with more elders and eventually fewer children. One solution from our distant past has lots of forgotten promise: putting our young and our old back together.
* Rethinking the age of consent. True and conscious rites of passage would serve us well if brought back. Children in this society have little incentive to take responsibility and mature before their peers. This is not to suggest either a race to adulthood, or a foregone childhood, but children should vote when they are ready to be responsible, and be set free when they are ready to be accountable. It is wrong to use birthdays as a criteria for this. Emancipation of minors should be more freely practiced, but lessons should be expected.
* Design for transience. The mobility of this society is often seen as being in tragic conflict with our growing need for community. But a look back to any primate society will show us either the young men or the young women eventually leaving their native group. The problem has grown now and the transient demographic has become less predictable. But much of the responsibility for this belongs to better exposure and education. The only way out of this is to see the place of community as an important location in the context of the course of a whole lifetime and design a community that is right for those who belong at the time. Design should expect only short-term commitments to the longer-term community. But there are precedents, universities for example, including the rolls of their alumni. New tribes must adapt to more mobile populations.
* Non-geographic community, including such things as fringe political parties and chat rooms on the net, are all the community that many of us will come to know. This too has been called tragic, a less than full spectrum, or a "bandwidth problem." But it is what we have to work with now: communities of interest. Politically, society would be better and more fairly served by dumping the two-party system (and its analogues) and accepting proportional representation as an acknowledgment of this need.
* Live in four dimensions. We are the lungfish crawling out of the sea, and we could be the thing that will replace us. But “there are things down there still coming ashore.” (Loren Eisley)
* There is a human nature that underlies our cultures. This is discoverable, if we have the proper mindset and science. We will benefit by designing for this. The ages of post-modernism and cultural relativism will also pass. The diversity in our points of view does not make all truth relative.
* Design to all that we are. Human is as human does. We cannot continue to look solely to our most popular thinkers’ and poets’ descriptions for our knowledge of who we are. That golden age was followed by centuries of slavery, rape and cannibalism. We need to study that. Denial of these darker behaviors will neither help us nor help us to outgrow them.
* Look past tomorrow. Getting the really big picture requires seeing beyond the next election year, a thing our "leaders" are not even close to doing. "The length of our vision is our moral boundary.” (Wendall Berry)
* Learn to unlearn as well as we learn. The failure of new and old designs and ideas suggest, like death and extinction, a lack of fitness. This is good information, but the way to use it is to stop doing what fails and experiment if necessary with something sufficiently new. Remember Einstein’s definition of insanity: to do the same thing over and over expecting different results.
* Negative population growth. Almost all of our efforts to right ourselves are moot without solutions to our overpopulation problem. But this is not a reason to stop planting seeds in other fields of the work. Once we attain a shrinking population, this will start to mimic the effects of per capita growth. But there will be lingering vertical diversity problems or generational imbalances that will only aggravate the logistics, and especially the consequences of sleazy Ponzi schemes like Social Security.
* Utopia is no place. The kind of community we need has not evolved yet. We cannot look to indigenous tribes and sustainable pre-industrial societies for comprehensive lifestyle packages, even though they have much to teach us. There is little of attractiveness in forty-year life spans and high infant mortality, or in the xenophobia that keeps driving primitive tribes apart. The solutions lie ahead of us, not in a nostalgia for something we willingly abandoned.
* There is no model community. Nor should there be. Diversity and unique responses to place are no less important between populations or colonies than between individuals. Selection is important here as well: successful community merits success, failed community earns lessons for all of us. We need the cultural diversity in order to learn these lessons.
* Living lightly does not mean leaving no marks. Our lives are most meaningful when our meanings outlive us. Ultimately one has success for the sake of successors.
* Becoming worthy ancestors is the social side of stewardship. It is also the real value behind traditional rites for the ancestors – these were supposed to inspire the people to become worthy ancestors in their turn. Not many of us today will be remembered like this. The discounting of posterity is this age's ugliest legacy. Pay your rent. This world is a usufruct.
* If not us, who? If not now, when? Remember what Gandhi accomplished with a little ahimsa, Satyagraha and right livelihood. Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has. (Margaret Mead)