Designing cities for silence

As an academic, I crave silence. In fact, without silence, I can’t think. And since thinking is my job, in our current media blitz steal-your-attention economy, I’m often miserable. When I don’t wish to work from home or my office, or am on the road, there are scant places where I can simply walk in, sit down, open my computer, journal, or book, and get to work. It’s a tyranny of noise. Or in the words of Grand Master Flash in “The Message”: “It’s like a jungle sometimes It makes me wonder how I keep from going under.”

The noise, the stress of noise, the violence of noise, is one of the elements that push us close to the edge.

As I study harmony inside and outside, among humans and between humans and nature, silence – or the science of listening – plays major. If we wish to cultivate a harmonious society, where we can invest our resources in art and movement and beauty and biomimcy and regeneration, then we need to create the conditions where we no longer have to contend with broken social norms; where crime is low to nonexistent; where hunger is nonexistent. Where we’re not polluting our air and our pure water is sacred. Where we respect silence and freedom of movement enough to create large carfree swaths of our cities. Where we find better ways to deliver goods like rail and cargo bike. Where we plant trees for shade and beauty.

People always lament: how do we get from here to there?

I always answer: queerly. Asymmetrically. In fits and starts. Non-linearly. Start with where you are. Don’t wait for a new city. Transform what you’ve got.

Buckminster Fuller always said that it’s easier to create alternatives and magnetize the world to the new innovation than to battle antiquated ideas. We have to actively make the old ideas obsolete by making the new ones simply more sexy.

But how do we make silence sexy? How do we make the tao sexy? How do we make sitting around and doing nothing (meditation) sexy? How do we make things sexy without the manipulative strobe-light grab you by the eyeballs and ears approach of hype-media that has come to be the dominant carnie form in late capitalism?

We do this by fairyrings of trees, solidarity circles of silence, nested neighborhoods of stillness. Dedicated communities upon communities showing the shades and nuances and varieties of silence, stillness, quietude, tranquility. We show the 1001 ways of doing silence. The abundant variety of nuance. We help people downregulate from numb dumb shouting blaring beeping to listening to jazz, then classical, then kora and koto, then the water in the river, the wind in the leaves, their own breath. We take people down in stages. We titrate with waves of in and out, so it doesn’t have to be all or nothing, so severe. But it does become all-encompassing in a non-cloying, non-forced way. Like the unforced force of the better argument – which only works under the auspicious conditions of listening and self-reflection and openness – silence can be won. It can be wooed.

For if we don’t have places to think, what good are our cities? Without silence, how do we think? How do we enter conversation, if not from a place of knowing our own thoughts? How can we truly join a crowd or a team if we don’t already know the beautiful solitude of trusting our senses, by living in places of beauty and the song of the elements?

The Failure of COP25

I recently read – from afar – the sorry state of the UNFCCC #COP25 in Madrid. According to 350.org, instead of barring fossil fuel companies from engineering the COP, the security guards at the UNFCCC forcibly removed hundred of activists and scientists who aimed to bring gravitas to an otherwise hypocritical and superficial discussion.

LIVE feed from the #COP25 UN climate meeting pic.twitter.com/KukPvMAtVx
— Dr. Lucky Tran (@luckytran) December 15, 2019

The de-badging of climate activists, who refused half-measures and rhetoric as adequate given the current hundreds of billions if not trillions of dollars of damages each year due to corporate- and government-induced climate chaos and decades of enforced ignorance, is not surprising–but it is the first time this has occurred on this scale at the UNFCCC.

As The Onion burlesques the denialism,

In response to the attention she was receiving for her vocal objections to international leaders’ refusal to address global warming, critics in the 2030s asked why teen climate activist Elisa Garcia-Reilly wasn’t in an abandoned school bailing water and shooting enemy foragers. “Instead of constantly screeching about how all our policies are selling out her generation and dooming them to unavoidable suffering, maybe this little hussy ought to spend more time in the remains of what was once a high school choosing which infants to save and defending her family’s food cache from scavengers,” said television pundit Caden Williams of the 16-year-old climate activist, voicing the sentiments of critics who declared that she had no clue what she was talking about and was trying to catastrophize being constantly starving and up to her waist in water.

A cinematic cityscape depicting a destroyed city.

Having myself attended the UN World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2002, in an action with AdBusters, I too was de-badged as US representative to the meeting Colin Powell obfuscated effective action. That was 17 years ago. Things have gotten even worse since then, and now climate chaos is felt in every part of the world.

The question remains: what will it take before we prioritize life over profit?

Will the currents have to stop? Massive crop failures from extreme weather events? Heat waves that kill millions? Dikes cracking from prolonged droughts? Wild fires destroying trillions of dollars of real estate? The end of business as usual as commodity chains break down?

The problem is, in our current system, there simply is no circuit breaker. There is nothing that could happen – within our current dominant mindset – that would force action. It’s like the person bleeding profusely who swears they’re healthy until they fall over and die, instead of getting the help they need and interceding on the “inevitable.”

This clip is an apt metaphor for Capitalist Realism.

Climate chaos is a spectrum. The more we double down with ignorance and denialism, the worse it gets. The sooner we clean up our act, the less possibility that doomerism will be correct. The irony of deterministic ideas such as “Well, we destroyed the climate, so might as well enjoy the luxuries before they’re all gone,” is that the path is made by walking. Yes, we have created since the industrial revolution, a tremendous amount of path dependency, creating ozone holes, the 6th great extinction, and making life on earth very difficult for the next hundred (or thousand – our choice) years.

But, what we do now crucially influences whether we get to keep some of the goods of human civilizations while jettisoning as soon as possible the bads; or, if we take out the majority of complex life on earth out with our species. It’s our choice. But it requires completely reorganizing society according to our interspecies interdependence, and revere the processes of nature which human artifice and systems of control and domination have swerved into dysfunctional and perverse fragmentation.

Hypocrisy at the International Society for Environmental Epidemiology

The ISEE, or the International Society for Environmental Epidemiology, is an organization that one would expect to walk its talk. After all, it has been around for 31 years with its annual conferences, and is one of the most sophisticated and cutting edge of the biological medical sciences. Environmental epidemiology’s ability to aggregate data across many different scientific domains in a meaningful way, to build off of findings in genetics, population biology, medicine, and public health, is truly extraordinary. Furthermore, the field has demonstrated a commitment to addressing questions of environmental racism, classicism, and gender inequality, and is actively diverse.

isee_2019_meeting_graphic

Why then, at my first ISEE conference, in Utrecht, which was a 30 minute train ride from my home in Rotterdam, am I bombarded with 1960s style catering?

I know, I know. Why pick on such a minor detail? After all, the content of the meeting is driving policies far more important than some PC peccadillo having to do with food, right?

I do not dispute the good of bringing people together here. I do not dispute the good of the research, the necessity of the work. But I do object to the weak argument that because of all the other good being done, that we can ignore our own personal emissions and harms, that we can refuse responsibility to do our part, to do better, to be the change we wish to see in the world.

The metaphor is how discredited Al Gore has been for flying all around the world on his private jet to promote sustainability. It doesn’t pass the smell test. How can we say, “Do as I say, not as I do?” It’s this sort of elitist thinking that got us into this quandary in the first place.

Example A. In a Symposium session today on “A World less dependent on fossil fuels — scientific evidence and corporate influence,” a presenter brought up the fact that the way academic conferences are organized are going to have to change. But, the presenter said the AMA (American Medical Association) has to change, but immediately addended his comment with, “But not the ISEE.” I and a few others blurted out “Why not?” Why is our precious little conference exonerated? How are we any different, except for our smaller size? People still are arriving from all over the globe via airplanes to spend 3 days presenting a 10 minute paper and then hanging around nervously at the peripheries hardly communicating with people they didn’t already know.

Thanks for the trash, ISEE!

Which leads me to the point of my post.

I have been to APHA and many other larger and smaller conferences, in Europe and the US, and I am sorry to say that this is the least environmentally sustainable conference I have ever been to. The fact that hundreds of thousands of pieces of single-use plastic are being used every day for this conference should be sobering to us all.

And the fact the majority of the food is meat and animal-based shows the height of hypocrisy on environmental issues—not leadership.

Therefore, I propose that the ISEE adopt the following two binding resolutions, effective immediately, and for all future conferences:


(1) Conference organizers and any other contracted companies and caterers shall only use reusable forks, knives, spoons, plates, bowls, cups, and other food ware items. This includes no longer relying on single-use creamers, sugars, etc. 

(If the ISEE and its conference organizers are still addicted to disposables, at least have them be PLA (compostable bioplastics), which is a far second-best to washing actual silverware and dishes, but is still better than sucking down more on the plastic-petrol pipeline.)

(2) In light of the well-documented harmful effects to personal and planetary health, ISEE conferences and gatherings shall only serve vegetarian meals, with a minimum of 50% of all meal items being vegan (and clearly labeled). This is consistent with the evidence base and ISEE’s leadership in walking our talk on health and climate change.
Please forward these resolutions to the authorizing boards, and let me know the outcome of the vote.

I see this as a beginning, not a destination. Complacency on these issues will just make the ISEE less relevant. For example, the name badges are oversized non-recyclable hard plastics. A huge amount of waste. And instead of giving steel water bottles out at every conference, just start selling them, and advertise in large font “BRING YOUR OWN REUSABLE WATER BOTTLE.” A little prevention goes a long way. But we, more than anyone, environmental epidemiologists, already knew that.

CODA

It turns out, that in the ISEE’s 2018 meeting in Ottowa, Canada, a country quickly becoming synonymous with oil power obliterating public health, that affiliated societies part of the ISES-ISEE joint conference received financial sponsorship by ExxonMobil — a huge conflict of interest! That the ISEE, and its local organizers let this one “slip past them,” is a huge cognitive-ethical bungle. How can public health researchers be credible in evaluating the science of pollution when they are lining their pockets and funding their meetings with those very same polluters’ dollars?

In the Introduction to the symposium on “A world less dependent on fossil fuels – scientific evidence and corporate influence” Prof. Dr. Manolis Kogevinas, Research Professor of the NCDs Program at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health, gave a talk on August 26th, 2019 that included the following abstract:

The Symposium organised by the Policy Committee of ISEE originated following the widespread surprise and annoyance of our members from the sponsorship of the 2018 ISES-ISEE joint conference in Ottawa by ExxonMobil. ISEE did not directly accept these funds but other societies are more willing to accept them.
We will argue that organizations representing health researchers should not accept support from the fossil fuel extraction companies.
Banning health research funded by the tobacco industry helped bring major public health gains; we will argue that we should do the same with BigOil. We further argue that ISEE should become more vocal on this issue and promote measures such as divestment from these industries.
There are three main reasons for taking this position: (i) The most important is that fossil fuel industries are major determinants of human disease and environmental deterioration; (ii) The second is that they knew! Like the tobacco industry, Big Oil knew for decades that their products could make the planet uninhabitable, and intentionally buried the evidence; (iii) The third reason is that like our stand against the tobacco industry that resulted to significant public health advances, we should take a categorical, effective and clear-cut position against the products and actions of these harmful industries. The science is more than adequate to warrant action. Unless we do this, we will not be able to effectively convince the lay public and our politicians of the urgency with which we must mobilise.
The proposed Symposium will illustrate major aspects of health consequences of fossil fuel combustion and the reactions of the industry trying to influence epidemiological research. We will discuss on the way epidemiologists should continue providing essential support to health policies avoiding corporate interests while encouraging industry and other stakeholder involvement as a part of the solution to the problem.

Interspecies Vision Design Lab at the California Academy of Sciences’ NightLife series

This Thursday, November 2, 2017, from 6-10pm, I’m very pleased to be presenting my work on interspecies seeing at the California Academy of Sciences. Their NightLife series, where the CAS becomes a 21+ venue for cocktail-fueled science, exhibits cutting-edge hands-on research to the public. Mingling scientists and community, the evening also offers access to their planetarium and living rainforest biosphere exhibit.

nightlife-webpage-banner.png

My exhibit will be on Interspecies Vision–a look at how other critters see the world, and how we can make sense of their sensory experience through the confines of our human-specific senses.

We’ll also be presenting the 4th yellow experiment: a yellow that only 2-10% of women can distinguish as different, based on the fact that instead of being trichromates like the rest of us (3 different types of color cones in their eyes), they actually have a fourth cone, making them tetrachromates capable of seeing a wider range of the visible color spectrum.

This after-hours museum-going made fun experience seeks to thrill with inquiry, curiousity, and the bizarre wonder of nature.

vip_nightlife_tour-.jpg

 

Owning Life versus Thwarting the Hygiene Hypothesis

 

With such a provocative title as “Pet Ownership Protects Us Against Allergies,” UCSF’s Dr. Homer Boushey makes the claim that children brought up with pets inherit some of their protective microbes that mitigate against developing allergies.

 

 

 

 

While certainly the science on exposing human children and adult humans to other forms of life soundly concludes that microorganism transfer is on the whole necessary for healthy (mind and body) development, owning life for the instrumental good of health is quite a quixotic mission. Destroying the planet and then importing charismatic genetically-altered (through breeding now, later through genetic engineering) cute critters that bypass our evolutionary instincts for fear by mirroring the oversized eyes of babies and other exaggerated features, is like getting silicon peck implants instead of actually doing manual labor to help society. It puts a natural symbiotic process into the realm of money–the financialization of nature. This devalues nature as such, and sees pets in terms of their use value for boosting infant immune systems. Such a logic is hopelessly backwards. Instead, we should be concentrating our energies on rewilding our cities, returning our suburbs to parks where humans can go, and letting our wild areas get a breather from human interference for at least a few generations. Then, living everyday with healthy dirt, animals and plants, we will receive the bounty of beneficial microbes we need to stay healthy and avoid sickness. Proper farming and permaculture principles, and creating new definitions of hygiene which are integrated with healthy ecosystems, achieves to a much greater degree the goods Dr. Boushey might wish to confer on our ailing feeble-minded culture, while also solving most of our other problems along with it.

Furthermore, it’s high time humans question ownership. Ownership of other bodies for our own benefit–bringing these bodies out to use and cuddle or parade, is just another misbegotten form of biopower. Where are those Foucaultians who apply biopower to pets? How do we think humans got the beneficial microbes we needed before there was even possible ownership of pets? Perhaps we need to rethink our antiseptic western civilization, our throwaway economy, and slavery of life to realize that continuous contact with the more-than-human word is the only way we will regenerate ourselves and nature.

Bioneers 2016

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This is the first time since I moved back to California last November that I’ve been able to engage a world-class group of scholars and change-makers gathered together with the sole purpose of harmonizing human systems with natural ones.

Last weekend at the 27th annual Bioneers Conference, I had the pleasure to converse with an array of people implementing the ideas of ecology and symbiotic biology so crucial to this current phase of our planetary development.

In moving out of linear, industrial factory-based models of the world and the self, the cyclical, spiral, redundant, diverse, resilient, and networked models of living organisms and ecosystems emerge as the tenable schemas best suited to life–human and otherwise.

Biological Pioneers are those who despite resistance from business-as-usual forge ahead to dream up, pilot, and implement technologies and policies that nudge our consciousness and practices towards a more equitable, sustainable, diverse, and fruitful organization.

In coordination with the Biomimicry Institute, the Conference brought researchers and activists from the frontlines of science and society to discuss inter-kingdom signaling, decoding of sea mammal communication via sonogram mapping and computer-aided filtering, growing the future of food with sea vegetables through zero-input seaweed farming, and developing methods to help all people reconnect with their indigenous roots and knowledge to bring forth sustainable and stewarding practices of land cultivation based on place, season, and community.

As this work has profound resonance with my own projects, I was delighted to share company with Paul Hawken, Janine Benyus, Joanna Macy, Starhawk,  Bill McKibben, James Nestor, Mark Plotkin, Bren Smith, and Vien Truong, not to mention the numerous activist artists and performers. There were many other talks and conversations I would have loved to engage in, were it not for the limitations of time.

As filmmaker René Scheltema identifies in Normal is Over, just as there are keystone species for an ecosystem, so too are their keystone individuals for movements; and in the movement towards regenerating harms from planetary anthropogenic disruptions, Bioneers is definitely a hub for bringing together the keystone individuals and groups working for an ecologically just and beautiful future.

One of the takeaway messages from Bioneers that warrants further reflection is the connection between the Beautiful, the True, and the Good–Socrates’ classic koan that repeatedly becomes the foundation for further dialogs about the metaphysical nature of the universe as well as the practical question of how ought we to live. That ecological aesthetics, a certain harmony between species, however carnivorous, dangerous, agonistic, and harsh that harmony might be, can be a guiding thread for understanding nature at a deeper level, remains with me. Bioaesthetics, or the beauty of life, the harmony of composition, is not something that permits judgment from anthropocentric–or, let’s be frank, culturally-specific and often manipulatively propagandized–aesthetic standards. Rather, bioaesthetics knits with complex systems theory as a pattern we can recognize to intuit ecological milieus inhabiting a state of resilience. The slack (buffer room), diversity, flexibility, and redundancy of complex resilient systems, proffers poigniant lessons for a planet in crisis (Gallopín 2002, 390). These patterns lead us organize and compost existing material into pathways that enable rather than undermine the development and evolution of complexity, synergy, and symbiosis.

 

 


Gallopín, G., 2002. Planning for Resiliance: Scenarions, Surprises, and Branch Points, in: Gunderson, L.H., Holling, C.S. (Eds.), Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural Systems. Island Press.

 

Desperate for Nature

The Guardian recently aired an article on a boutique hedgehog petting zoo-café that opened in Tokyo. For $9 per person, visitors can drink coffee and cuddle these animals. Popular with kids and adults alike, this café, named Harry to pun on the Japanese pronunciation of “Hari” meaning spiky, aims to soothe the souls of nonhuman nature deprived urbanites.

While the Guardian sells the phenomena of animal voyerism cafés as a cute part of Japanese culture, I read this situation of one of perversity. These animals, 30 different species of hedgehog, are for sale, and their raison d’etat is to be handled, petted, and inadvertently abused by children and well-meaning connection-deprived adult humans.

Capturing animals in the wild and breeding them for commercial purpose is like putting an ape on display to be laughed at and anthropomorphized. The authentic hedgehog encounter happens conveniently enough in a city, where these animals would not last 5 minutes outside the café before being run-over by a car or otherwise killed. These animals are given what Agamben has called “bare life.” Yes, they are living. But they are stripped of their Umwelt. They have been deprived of their prey and predators and are kept in glass cages; looking happy enough to the projecting human. But their lives remain ones of involuntary slavery, and at-will arbitrary torture.

Certainly, the humans paying their blood-money for an hour of handling these creatures don’t think of their actions as morally or physically abhorrent. They are simply buying a service, a product, that happens to be free and unrestrained access to another living body without consent. But the pervasiveness of such shops in Tokyo, and with much of pet ownership in general, is that these creatures end up becoming the dumpsters for unresolved human emotions and energies, positive and negative. They are infected with our moods and attitudes, on what invariably end up being what Karen Barad calls “marks on bodies.” When you put hedgehogs in a commercial setting, you don’t get hedgehogs “as a representative of a species” or as a token of a type. Instead, what you get is an onto-ethical-epistemological nexus of performances which can only be true as every aspect of the encounter.

While such encounters might assuage some of the Naturverlassenheit of zombie robot consumers, it does little to establish anchor of learning from these hedgehogs as autonomous agents with geographic and environmental histories and desires of their own.