Zoom in, zoom out Focusing our cities under a microscope

Caption from Polarizing, Petrographic, Geological

In 1977 Charles and Ray Eames [1] created a simple and evocative film called Powers Of 10  where they show exponentially a series of zooms starting from a couple lying placidly on a picnic. With this format, premonitory of current Google Earth, this film shows graphically our relative position into a number of systems and subsystems that are organized in a way that we are still trying to understand. At scale 10 (5) m it is difficult to differentiate the city from the natural space surrounding it. Travelling from the macro cosmos to the microcosm help us to discover our real position into this series of systems.

From the project Powers of Ten. Source: Powers of Ten

After this exercise of scale we can make another one, based on time, and observe Earth’s history in cycles or epochs. Then we can notice on the contingency of our presence into the planet. It is too presumptuous to believe that the main purpose of materials and energy is to sustain our existence. Slavoj Zizek's questions about this topic in his text Censorship Today  [Violence, or Ecology as a New Opium for the Masses] saying: "No longer can we rely on the safeguarding role of the limited scope of our acts: it no longer holds that, whatever we do, history will go on”. Humanity and its achievements are nothing more than one element in the current cycle of Earth’s history. Only at this scale we can perceive ourselves as organisms which interact in a series of systems that we call cities. These systems need a set of inputs for their livelihood, and his influence goes beyond their physical limits.

An example of these hidden connections is the case of soybean, mainly produced at South America [Argentina, Paraguay] but mainly consumed in China. Olmo Calvo Rodríguez, SUB photojournalist says

“In Paraguay there are more than 2,600,000 soy planted hectares  -double than 2001 - and last year produced 3.8 million tonnes. Most of which is genetically modified. In addition to the expulsion of peasants, the products used for fumigation are considered highly dangerous toxic.”

Soybean crop in Paraguay. Source: Nuestra Mirada

We had mentioned before that there are some disciplines that could help us in understanding the behaviour, connections and limits of our systems, and there are new evidences supporting these approaches. Under a thermodynamic approach to our cities, we would realize how smart it would be to rethink our patterns of growth. Understanding that our presence in the world had a beginning and will eventually have an end, and that’s just part of a cycle.

In his book “The End of History” [1992], Francis Fukuyama [2] writes about the ethical and social implications of new techno-scientific developments (e.g. bio-genetics). Fukuyama states "History should be viewed as an evolutionary process”.  Zizek prevents on Ecology as a New Opium for the Masses concluding with the unbelievable proposal of a German ecological scientist back in 1970s: “since nature is changing constantly and the conditions on Earth will render the survival of humanity impossible in a couple of centuries, the collective goal of humanity should be not to adapt itself to nature, but to intervene into the Earth ecology even more forcefully with the aim to freeze the Earth's change, so that its ecology will remain basically the same, thus enabling humanity's survival” [3].  Even appearing “green” and politically correct, today we can discover the same message hidden in scientific efforts and creative marketing strategies of most corporations specially those related to energy and mobility.

Cargill, one of the larger producers of ethanol and biodiesel. Source: 10 of Cargill's Next-Gen Biofuel Bets

After this exercise of auto-situation and as a balance to so outlandish proposals as the last mentioned, it seems an intelligent option to see the relationship of our cities with the environment, such as organisms and the biosphere that sustains them. Under this metabolic approach it’s easier to perceive our contingency and accept the challenge of decolonizing our ideas from the idealization of growth and progress, allowing us to adapt or revert our growing rhythm in a way similar to this described by Ivan Illich while referring to the wisdom of snail:

“The snail constructs the delicate architecture of its shell by adding ever increasing spirals one after the other, but then it abruptly stops and winds back in the reverse direction. In fact, just one additional larger spiral would make the shell sixteen times bigger. Instead of being beneficial, it would overload the snail. Any increase in the snail’s productivity would only be used to offset the difficulties created by the enlargement of the shell beyond its preordained limits. Once the limit to increasing spiral size has been reached, the problems of excessive growth multiply exponentially, while the snail’ s biological capability, in the best of cases, can only show linear growth and increase arithmetically”.

If instead of actively seek technological efficiency that allows us to maintain the level of energy and resources (call it growth or sustainable development), and ultimately creates better products for everyone... but also better wastes; we empower other connections between body [men] and systems [cities], based on the exchange of relational goods, labor support and network assets and the creation of open source systems that allow the appropriation and adaptation to the specific reality where they are applied.

Images from Water Installation by Gilles Revell

Maybe this thermodynamic understanding of our cities may help us to transform our transition through Earth’s cycles in a seed for new systems that we can’t begin to imagine. These emergent systems would mutate and adapt, nurtured by the inorganic DNA that we leave in our cities.

It’s year 3ϕ at Andrómeda V galaxy, after zooming his microscope to 10 (5) m Professor Charles Eames try to register the final adaptation of the technical devices implanted to the organism located in the Milky Way zone. Professor Eames has to mark the conclusion of his observations on the evolution of the “blue” cyborg system placed at the outer limits of this zone...he has to choose into these two options:
  • The artificial systems implanted grew until collapse
  • They stop their growing, adapt and revert until final accomplishment with the natural basis where they where implanted.
Image from Snow Pictures

Ethel Baraona Pohl + César Reyes | dpr-barcelona

[1] Charles and Ray Eames web-site
[2] Francis Fukuyama at the wikipedia
[3] Censorship Today [Violence, or Ecology as a New Opium for the Masses], Slavoj Žižek

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