‘Place Making’ by Anselm Hook

I periodically like to scoop up Anselm’s work and re-post it places. Mostly because he is freaking brilliant and I am not sure if people really understand this.

Here is an essay he wrote back early in 2007 when we were first becoming good friends. It stems from part of his now legendary amount of work in the world of locative media (numerous projects…)

An Essay on Place-Making by Anselm Hook hook.org

Place Making

[email protected]

In the book “1491″ Charles C. Mann notes that much of what we think of as a wild and untamed Amazon Basin may have been in fact a kind of human managed park.

That people can ‘make places’ in the large scale; deeply reshape entire landscapes is surprising. I hadn’t thought of the real world as a ‘wiki’ but clearly the parallel of grooming our digital gardens could be applied to the real world as well. We often forget about the plasticity of the net, of communities and of the real world. Many of our mediums are two way; they shift in response to our actions within them. We do more than “report” or “comment” but actually “change” and we can choose to do so in an intentional way.

This observation slightly set me off on a mad read through various texts including “1491″ itself, “Blessed Unrest” by Paul Hawken, “Endgame” by Derrick Jensen, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan, “The Pathless Way” which is a reading on John Muir by Michael Cohen and notably “Food not Lawns” by Heather Flores.

In the following I am going to go on a random (and long!) walk through these books.

Here is a flickr picture of the cluster, more or less centered around “Blessed Unrest”, “1491″ and “Omnivore’s Dilemma”:


There were also other sources that contribute to the thinking here that I should mention:

1) The term “place making” as practiced by Portland City Repair:


2) As well, due to my work at Meadan, I had a chance to talk to Luis Von Ahn about his ‘human computation’ approach. A summary of some of his work is presented here and is critical listening:

3) Jared Diamond’s “Collapse” is a hidden gorilla in the discussion although the conclusions in this more recent round of books go in different directions. I mentioned “Collapse” earlier here:


I apologize for the length and yet incompleteness of this rant. I simply have not had the time to make it more concise but I wanted to share the thoughts before they were completely obsolete, forgotten or lost. There are many holes in the arguments made, such as being more precise about the actual costs and feasibility of rewriting our landscapes underneath 300 million Americans (if we just speak about North America).

I will begin with “1491″.


According to “1491″ Pre-Columbian natives used a form of ‘biosphere engineering’ to bias the world in their favor; employing practices ranging from labor intensive mixed crop agriculture, to judicious use of fire.

To cite a few comments:

“Anthropologists now believe that the majority of the Amazon rain forest was managed by humans. There are many fruit and nut bearing trees in the Amazon, and this was probably due to human interference. They also used a unique form of burning in the Amazon, where they would stop the fields from completely burning so that there would be charcoal. Turns out the active carbon in charcoal bonds to organic elements and makes the soil as good or probably better than using fertilizer.”

“Amazon soil is poor, intense rain and heat of forest have eroded its surface, washed out all its minerals and decomposed vital organic compounds. As a result much of the red Amazonian soil is weathered, harshly acid, and almost bereft of essential nutrients – one reason ecologists refer to the tropical forest as a “wet desert”. Most nutrients in tropical forests are stored not in the soil as in temperate regions, but in the vegetations that covers it.”

[ http://fatknowledge.blogspot.com/2005/09/revelations-from-1491.html ]

There were larger populations with technologies more varied than we may have formerly appreciated:

“The idea that the Amazon is not an untouched wilderness but the product of extensive management by large human populations sharply contrasts with long-held views that the region was sparsely populated by tribal groups who peacefully coexisted with the apparently hostile environment that surrounded them. [There is] evidence of extensive civilizations in the region, most notably the human-enhanced floodplains in Bolivia, remnants of ancient towns and road systems and the presence of rich, apparently human-made soils [ called 'terra preta' ]. Scientists believe terra preta was created through a process one specialist calls the “slash-and-char” method. Essentially, instead of completely burning trees to ash, pre-Colombian farmers merely smoldered organic matter to form charcoal, and then stirred the charcoal into the soil.”

[ from http://news.mongabay.com/2006/0514-amazon.html ]

We only recognize this view recently – looking at older texts the scientists are completely confused:

“The origin of the Amazonian Dark Earths ['terra preta'] is not entirely clear and several conflicting theories were discussed in the past. Camargo (1941) speculated that these soils might have formed on fallout from volcanoes in the Andes, since they were only found on the highest spots in the landscape. Other theories included a formation as a result of sedimentation in Tertiary lakes (Falesi, 1974) or in recent ponds (Cunha-Franco, 1962).”

[ from http://www.css.cornell.edu/faculty/lehmann/terra_preta/TerraPretahome.htm ]

One early technology worth emphasis is the “Milpa”:

“A milpa is a field, usually but not always recently cleared, in which farmers plant a dozen crops at once including maize, avocados, multiple varieties of squash and bean, melon, tomatoes, chilis, sweet potato, jicama, amaranth and mucuna. In nature, wild beans and squash often grow in the same field as teosinte, the bean using the tall teosinthe as a ladder to climb towards the sun; below ground, the bean’s nitrogen-fixing roots provide nutrients needed by teosinte. The milpa is an elaboration of this natural situation…”

“The milpa in the estimation of H. Garrison Wilkes, a maize researcher at the University of Massachusetts in Boston ‘is one of the most successful human inventions ever created’. In Europe and Asia farmers try to avoid stressing the soil by rotating crops; they may plant wheat one year, legumes the next, and let the field lie fallow in the year following. Then farmers use artificial fertilizer which at best is expensive and at worst may inflict long term damage on the soil. Nobody really knows how sustainable that is. The milpa by contrast has a long record of success. ‘There are places in Mesoamerica that have been continuously cultivated for four thousand years and are still productive’” according to Wilkes. [ from '1491' page 221 in the 'Very Old Bones' chapter ]

A Milpas can be thought of as the extreme utilization end of a managed forest in a sense. Kind of the ultimate wiki. A labour intensive mixed garden that is intensively and manually groomed for group reward. Diversity (presumably) confers some resistance to the vagaries of climate and disease.

Beyond even this were technological practices that appeared modern and industrial in nature.

Fish-weirs that cover 30,000 square miles, are visible from space (and may be the greatest building projects ever undertaken by humanity). I mentioned these in previous posts to geowanking.

[ see http://lists.burri.to/pipermail/geowanking/2007-March/003683.html ] [ and http://lists.burri.to/pipermail/geowanking/2007-March/003684.html ] [ and http://lists.burri.to/pipermail/geowanking/2007-March/003695.html which was feedback from their discoverer ]

The same activities apply to North America. And this interests us because of our choices now about how we manage our land. To briefly draw a sketch of North American human habitation as I see it now (drawing the lines in between “1491″ and other books):

13,000 or more years ago people begin to kayak and fish along the edge of the Bering Land Bridge. They arrive in Alaska in several waves. A small genetically isolated group of individuals eventually making it past glacial shield walls into North America proper. Populations boom and through mismanagement quickly kill off all the mega-fauna. Large populations also act as a well minimizing any genetic drift from newcomers. Post glacial mega-floods wipe away planetary early record of civilization. Lacking oil based industrial technology they eventually come into a balance with their natural world, using a kind of bio-technics. Fire is used to burn off underbrush, to drive bison and to create grassland. Bison in turn are encouraged to constantly migrate (again by use of fire) and this helps the health of grasslands. The eastern seaboard is planted with fruits and nuts. A sublime expertise and attention to the pattern of the life emerges out of ongoing use of life technology. Even their language becomes deeply inflected with their naturalist lore. Strategies employed included an ambitious and possibly conscious genetics program to define maize. Populations grow up to about 100 million; comparable to current populations in many ways. Huge civilizations rise. With the arrival of Europeans populations crash due to genocide and disease; about 98% of the natives dying off within 100 years. Low genetic diversity may have played a role in the effectiveness of disease [ as my friend Paige points out ]. With the top predator species removed the ecosystem oscillates out of balance; second rung species such as bison, carrier pigeons and salmon undergo huge population growth; forests become overgrown; forest fires rage. Europeans eventually sort things out. Most of the United States and Canada is turned over to production of corn, soybean and cattle. Twitter is invented, we all congratulate ourselves for wisely trawling away the bottom of the oceans and plan for our off-planet escape once the inevitable food-chain collapse begins.

My overall sense is that using the technology of the time, bronze tools, fire, spears, early peoples around the world killed off everything they could, dominated the land to the extremes that they could, but eventually came into an equilibrium. Since they depend on life technologies more than us, they end up becoming part of the ecosystem and engaging in a symbiotic relationship with that ecosystem, grooming it to suit their needs, and possibly in turn being changed as well. The Americas still offer traces of a fabulous paleolithic record, one completely eradicated in Europe, and even almost invisible here due to the clash of two hugely unequal cultures aided by the the spread of germs.

Omnivore’s Dilemma

In ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma’ Michael Pollan points out practical ways we can start to reclaim our environment. He talks about living in “local food” systems, to have “closed-loops” where all processes are fully transparent.

In particular he talks about PolyFace Farms, a small farming operation that makes produce, milk, eggs, chicken and cattle and yet has no waste in a local and transparent process. They farm without pesticides or any external inputs other than sunlight and rain and at a higher total yield per acre than industrial farming practices:


Effectively PolyFace Farms rejects the ‘unrolled’ farming practices; demonstrating how a ‘closed-loop’ farming practice can also be efficient.

Historically farming was a form of solar power. Radiation was captured into forests, grasses and algae. Animals interacted with these landscapes in ways that plant life had evolved to deal with. Everything was local and there were no pesticides or food inputs required to keep the system going.

Today farming is a form of oil power. Machines are used to bring in and distribute fertilizer and pesticides. Large quantities of mono-culture crops are grown (in a way that is easier for machines which lack human deftness to cut down at the end of the season). There tends to be runoff of excess fertilizer and this becomes a pollutant for rivers and streams. Animals are kept separately in feed-lots, often in their own waste. Antibiotics are required to keep animals healthy. Food has to be brought in. Waste has to be trucked out.

Industrial farmers separate the inputs and outputs to forge a higher yield in one dimension even though they are really just juggling the environmental books. Modern farming is effectively a criminal form of total cost evasion that hurts everybody. It has impoverished farmers, driven many off the farms and to suicide, and fueled inefficient yet huge agri-business corporate machines that we will now have to shut down at some significant grief to us as a civilization.

It’s an example of a maxim that the side-effects of any intended action always dominate and drown out the original intent.

Oddly I found a parallel to Neal Stephenson’s brilliant work ‘The Diamond Age’ in an idea of the ‘feed’ versus the ‘seed’. The feed represents an industrial delivery process, creating a dependency between consumers and producers, and the seed is a return to local consumption practices. Metaphorically one is a line, the other a circle. Linear ‘unrolled systems’, whose inputs and outputs are not connected to each other, benefit intermediary transporting agents or parasites. Closed-loop systems are more robust in that they protect communities from economic and environmental flux.

Aside from yield it should also be pointed out that any practice affects language and perception. Polyface farms goes “beyond organic” and introduces a concept of “local food” as a measurement we should seek when choosing food. Polyface farms also appears more traditional, it appears more ‘beautiful’ and ‘less inhumane’ because it is more in line with the deeper meaning that our language has carried for us through industrialization. There is a measurement applied to slaughter – that of a “glass abattoir” – where processes are public, open and invite observation. This is a contrast to industrial farming where processes are so horrifying to our sensibilities that they must take place behind closed doors.

If in fact Polyface farms goes bankrupt, and the only thing that survives is the one phrase “local food”; it may have been a success.

Omnivore Thoughts

Michael Pollan also posted something in the New York Times that you may find worthwhile. It didn’t have nearly as much impact as his book on me (perhaps it was the digital medium):


The question that arises out of his work was: what access to local foods do we have? How do we even shop locally?

Most of us do the basics to make safe food choices. Scouring for recipes and ideas, going out of our way way to buy organic produce at Saturday Markets, cooking larger meals that last for days and freezing what is not used, making sure meals include salad and the like.

But perhaps even more is needed.

EcoTrust and other organizations here in Portland, Oregon do provide resources; and there is a network of local farmer delivered produce. So perhaps it is possible to have local food not just on a Saturday market day but on any day, and have good guaranteed quality and transparency on that food. EcoTrust also goes beyond just food and acts as an anchor for civil society projects such as those that “Blessed Unrest” speaks about. In fact they hosted the launch event for Paul Hawken’s recent “Wiser Earth” project which is discussed later.

[ see http://www.ecotrust.org/ ]

But even with local foods in hand – then what about making and preparing food? How does one even make food on an ongoing daily basis, day after day? For me I occasionally cook but there is always spoilage; I simply cannot buy efficiently in the quantities I want – and it is more of a gourmet experience than a cost saving and quality of life enhancing experience. Then too what about all of the little out-of-season treats and desserts we give ourselves as a reward? Do we give up those in favor of whatever the local market has in season? Clearly one has to start canning and planning a year in advance… and then this raises the question how much work does it really require to live locally?

It all seems like a hassle.

What may be needed is more of a community than just an individual atomized lifestyle.

One has to be in an extended family network, and people have to specialize and trade off roles. Somebody cooks for everybody, somebody cans, somebody farms. Import some grandmas who remember how the hell to make food, throw in some farmers, find some families that want to live better. Find a few economists who can study the system itself and produce reports that show competitive advantage toe-to-toe with industrial farming. Even throw in high technology workers for extra dollars.

Effectively to eat better one needs to not just buy better but to literally engineer or join or create an intentional community built around a fundamental principle of rewriting its surrounding landscape, making it richer and healthier over time.

(As a parent the unimaginable time costs of raising a child can also be factored into this. Instead of spending perhaps half of ones time in play, one could trade off here again; with kids protected by an enclave of other adults.)

Perhaps one thing needed is some kind of “scoring” that weighs individual free time, individual quality of life, food, diet, support for family and children, social space, stress, mobility. Such a scoring probably should include personal sense of value, meaningfulness and purpose in life. Maximizing for those scores could lead people to select practices such as discussed in ’1491′. Or perhaps we could all just move to Bhutan.

Presumably his work will have some impact. We’ll likely see farmer co-ops and marketing boards with a “local food” mantra emerge. We’ll see meat marked with the location of the “glass abattoir” where you can go see the animals being killed that feed you. It isn’t just knowing how far the food traveled, or that it was “organic” but being able to actually go and see it with your own eyes, and having it be close enough that it is not a big deal, and even more so, that you as a visitor are not just welcome but desired. That seems inevitable.

Even perhaps we’ll see crazy new dating services not just for singles but for adopting whole extended families into intentional communities… “rate my commune”.

Perhaps we just need a new food aesthetic; one where people actually love good food. Marc Powell of foodhacking is a good example of somebody at the vanguard of a community that cares enough about food to actually seek out good food, and presumably therefore may protect good food sources.

It’s clearly a John Muir trope of the civil society moment that “When we try to pick out anything by itself we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe”. We are “bound fast by a thousand invisible cords that cannot be broken”. To solve the problem of what to eat for dinner, we must rewrite how we live.

Neah Bay Fisherman

Recently Paige Saez and I were hiking in the Olympic National Forest in northern Washington. This was kind of a prelude for me to doing some hiking after Ryan and I do WhereCamp. We hiked around the Sea Stacks at Shi Shi Beach and explored some of the spectacular tide pools. Incidentally a highly recommended hike.

On the way we had stopped by a house in Neah Bay with a hand-printed sign selling fresh caught wild salmon – it was a local native fellow. We talked for quite a while before focusing on actually buying fish. There was a deliberate and conscious pace that he set. Eventually he mentioned that he would have to purchase $80,000 worth of gear in order to be able to sell this commercially – beyond what he was selling us – yet that his family had been doing this for generations.

Later I noted that the park-land in that area represented the least “actually useful” land – much of the rest was subject to aggressive forest “management”. Some coastal areas were state protected and or otherwise inaccessible to industry, but outside of that everything was hugely clear-cut in giant patches of tree-farms as is most of the United States sadly. It struck me as odd that the National Park didn’t simply protect an entire chunk of the landscape in all its diversity for once – including the persons.

http://tinyurl.com/335×98 http://www.fs.fed.us/r6/olympic/

It would be interesting to see what a whole watershed management practice, that allowed and encouraged human habitation, could look like. Here opportunities for local food webs appeared to be marginalized by law with a separation between used and unused land enforced at a federal level.


The basic thesis Derrick is presenting is similar to “1491″ and “Omnivore’s Dilemma”. It is “live in the parks – don’t just set them aside – make the earth a park.”. Again it is an idea of place making writ large. But with an oxyacetylene anger that is surprising.

He approaches crimes against nature with a kind of beginner’s mind; as if he was freshly transported from the year 1491 to the year 2007. The rawness and tone of his anger is actually difficult to read and to stomach. (As simply a reading practice I ended up cutting it with Kurzweil in order to actually be able to even finish the work. Kurzweil is so focused on one sine wave that he’s decomposed out of the noise that its always an upbeat counterpoint to almost anything. By contrast Derrick has found another sine wave going darkly in the opposite direction).

In typical Derrick style he relays a friends comments:

“A friend and fellow activist said, ‘What will it take for you to finally call it an apocalypse? The death of the salmon? Global warming? The ozone hole? The reduction of the krill populations off Antarctica by 90 percent, the turning of the sea off San Diego into a dead zone, the same for the Gulf of Mexico? How about the end of the great coral reefs? The extirpation of two hundred species per day? Four hundred? Six hundred? Give me a specific threshold, Derrick, a specific point at which you’ll finally use that word.’”.

Derrick later points out the role of the predator is to live closely intertwined with a natural system:

“When I eat a salmon I pledge myself to ensuring that this particular run of salmon continues and that this river of which the salmon are a part of thrives. If I cut a tree I make the same pledge to the larger community of which it is a part. When I eat beef or for that matter carrots I pledge to eradicate factory farming”. [ Page 138 ]

With that position he swiftly cuts through Peter Singer style inanities about a calculus of suffering. Peter Singer being a philosopher who paints both himself and people around him into peculiar corners using koans that have no resolution. For example selecting to minimize the suffering to cattle by killing all cattle. Others, such as Michael Pollan struggle with Peter Singer, and versus their predatory instincts. Derrick instead speaks about selecting to maximize biodiversity – a very E.O Wilson attitude – and not to select for solutions that necessarily minimize suffering. Such a calculus better seems able to meet Singerian requirements than even Singer’s philosophy.

One amusing parable Derrick relates is how “the bodies of the dead are buried in a confined space, heating the air around them and causing it to expand. Because the space is confined, pressure goes up, pushing a piston which turns a crankshaft. This enslavement device is called the steam engine and has evolved now into the internal combustion engine. At first the burned dead were trees, and later the longer dead in the form of oil. Anybody who has ever used fire has used energy stored in trees or coal for that matter. The big change is in the conversion of these dead into mechanical energy, into what Catton and others call ‘ghost slaves’. Today we have about eighty or so ghost slaves for each citizen and more than 9/10ths of the energy used by Homo sapiens is derived from sources other than each year’s crop of vegetation”. [ p 107 ].

Derrick echoes my fear that industrialized religion is nihilist. And I’d like to digress there momentarily:

He comments “The material world is primary. This does not mean that the spirit does not exist, nor that the material world is all there is. It means that real world actions have real world consequences. It means we cannot rely on Jesus, Santa Claus, the Great Mother or even the Easter bunny to get us out of this mess. It means this mess relaly is a mess and not just the movement of God’s eyebrows. It means we have to face this mess ourselves. It is very silly to think or act or be as though this world is not real and primary and it is pathetic to not live our lives as though our lives are real.” [ page 300 slightly paraphrased for brevity ].

Clearly many folks have a sense of the presence of God. Others, the atheists subscribe to an idea of technology and progress. Both points of view imply that something very much like God eventually makes itself manifest. In many ways both the Christians and the Atheists are very similar.

Anything that gives us an excuse to walk away from our behavior here on Earth seems wrong; religion or science. The bible is like television tuned to static; people see whatever they want and use it to add righteous weight to their idealism and hope. Reason is the same way; driven by emotion and highly subjective choices. Nature on the other hand does actually and literally speak. She corrects naivet strongly, demonstrates the value of good relationships, the need to be prepared, and the rewards we receive when we are in harmony with her. There is nothing silent about it, nothing arbitrary or idealistic. If we could somehow practice an engaged and active worship of our own real world, simply being in nature more, and reflecting on what nature says it feels like that would make us stronger.

Overall I can’t recommend taking all of Derrick’s recommendations. Blowing up cell towers and dams will land you in jail, destroy your life, and accomplish nothing. Place destroying plays to the strengths of oppressors. However the unalloyed depth of his rage is the way nature would be outraged if she had a human voice. Because of this Derrick will eventually get in legal trouble for the depth of the anger he expresses. We simply cannot do that, and we must find other ways.

Oddly when I later read “Blessed Unrest” by Paul Hawken, I saw similarity. Paul and Derrick both see the same issues; Derrick says “blow up dams”, Paul echoes “This means dismantling the big bombs, dams, ideologies, contradictions, wars and mistakes” [ in turn quoted from Arundhati Roy ]. I asked Mr. Hawken about Derrick’s work and we both saw the works as definately affected by the author having been abused by his father (a point Derrick freely admits).

Blessed Unrest

In “Blessed Unrest” Paul Hawken points out that there is a civil society movement and that it is directly connected to preserving our environment. The two causes of civil rights and protecting the planet are connected. This movement is granular and stretches from a mass of local watershed grassroots organizations up to bemoths like Google.org and Pierre Omidyar (who funded Platial).

I had waited to post to geowanking because I wanted to get a copy of Hawken’s book. When it did arrive a couple of days ago I found myself fairly captivated. I had in fact meant to go out and play with fellow geo hacker Dave Yaginuma who was in town for the RailsConf. (Thanks for the pass Gina). Instead I found myself awake at 4:30 in the morning finishing up the appendices.

Similar observations to “1491″ are also echoed:

“When you take into account an agriculture that also included coffee, cacao, tomatoes, avocado, peppers, cayenne, chilies, peanuts, cashews, tobacco, sunflower, safflower, vanilla, pineapple, papaya, blueberries, strawberries, passion fruit, pecans, butternut squash, pumpkin, zucchini, maple syrup, cranberry, tapioca and a whole assortment of beans, it is not difficult to concede that Amerindian farmers were the leading plant breeders in history. Europeans, who had gone chronically hungry for centuries, came into an edible landscape farmed by people who by and large were well fed.” [ John Mohawk, Subsistence and Materialism, Paradigm Wars, Indigenous People's Resistance to Globalization. ] [ Page 98 ]. ( I’m a huge fan of laundry lists of food and will reproduce all faithfully ).

“Agriculture is culture, and the Americas have been cultured – one might say gardened – for a long time. The romanticized notion of a pristine environment, the idea that white men discovered a virgin continent, was a fanciful one. Beginning in the Pleistocene, humans have altered the land to the benefit of themselves and other species. If you walk into a primary Amazonian forest with an ethnobotanist, you will find a landscape that has been transformed over thousands of years by the intervention of the native population. Forests were converted into silvicultural gardens that supplied a year-round crop of medicines, fibers, fruits and animals. If we could walk the tall-grass Buffalo Commons before the mass slaughter of ruminants and ungulates, we would find ourselves head high in grasses in one of the most fertile savannas in the world, sustained and kept productive by fire ecology.” [ Page 98 ].

Usually when reading one is trying to find new language; ways to succinctly capture and express ideas. One piece of language “Blessed Unrest” introduces is Stewart Brand’s idea of “slow food”; citing his friends Danny Hillis (whose metaweb project I mention elsewhere by itself). Personally I think the “local food” moniker is more empirical – “slow food” is not a winning phrase and probably only succeeds because of the fame lensing effect around Stewart.

Paul Hawken has a kind of Chomsky criticism for media surrounding WTO and global market ideals. He goes out of his way to point out that the so called Seattle Riots were largely a press fabrication, that there is a unified yet non-violent resistance to globalization. He says the press in general focuses on noise and rhetoric rather than say some of the more critical works such as:


He also makes a point that “when communities depend almost entirely on sources of production thousands of miles if not continents away, they become spectral towns lined with fast-food outlets and big-box retailers”. [ p 118 ]. He argues that “there are no economies of scale; there is only nature’s economy.”.

He opines “There is no reason that we cannot build an exquisitely designed economy that matches biology in its diversity and integrates complexity rather than extinguishing it.”

Of note “Darwin’s Nightmare” is mentioned. Although not an unbiased movie it is a must see:


A subtle point is made about language itself; how the dividing lines between life, intelligence, language are not so clear as we might think. “The Mi’kmaq people know the world through sound. Mi’kmaq name their pine trees by the sound of the wind soughing through the branches one hour before sunset in the fall. Elders can remember the prior names of the native stands of pine, and detect how trees are changing due to environmental damage from acid rain and air pollution by comparing their names with current sounds that they make”. [ p 101]. When we think of diversity, language itself is a form of diversity, and each perhaps fits closely to a geography. More than that it is embedded awareness. The classic phrase “meaning through use” applies here. We are prey to language; we often think in words and words and their relationships to each other can shape our thoughts. Being on the lookout for good terms, and for new terms is a good practice.

But it is in the appendix where the fun begins – as Paul unveils his own collaborative digital gardening project:


This is a wiki of non-profits that hopefully will be collectively groomed. It is a worthwhile and new effort because prior to Wiser Earth there simply was no free, public, definitive enumeration of non-profits.

Supposedly “public interest” companies such as http://networkforgood.org and http://guidestar.org silo this community data behind their own walls under the excuse that it costs money to groom the commons (the same circular justification that NavTek and Encylopedia Brittanica have hidden behind as well).

“Life information” – data that materially affects the quality of life – should be public with the responsible government agencies carrying the burden of making it public at no cost in a multiplicity of media. Incorporated non-profits are all registered with the Federal Government and there should have been at least a download or cd-rom available from the federal government, but there is not. One cannot ‘see’ what non-profits are geographically nearby, or find non-profits meeting a certain criteria.

This lack of data hampers good work. I recently had to find a list of geographically proximate non-profits for an Interra related project. This required scraping GuideStar and NetworkForGood, running 10 threads in tandem for about 2 weeks, slowed by http access latency (using whytheluckystiff’s hpricot html parser in ruby). The end result was the 90000-99999 zipcode block, and simply the ability to find the locations of the nearest incorporated headquarters of various non-profits in that block. This still didn’t tell me the geographical area of interest that the non-profit was spending into.

The Wiser Earth Wiki is part of a longer term vision to not just capture all the non-profits but to try and create a kind of “Whole Earth Catalog” of practices for businesses. This last led under Betsy Power’s guidance.

Interestingly, and somewhat suddenly, we also see a number of encyclopedic efforts including “Encyclopedia of Life” from Edward Wilson (similar to Tree of Life):


and even more ambitious projects like FreeBase from Metaweb:


There seems to be some recognition that ‘commons’ or ‘gardens’ can work and are a useful strategy. It is a pattern of human behavior that seems to be having a resurgence both on and off the net.

Again on a personal note, part of the thesis of “Blessed Earth” was the connectedness of the civil society movement. And it turns out its connections stretch right into me, and I’ve only been involved on the periphery (due to a recent interest in not dying in a sun-baked wasteland). It seems like many of us here in the kind of progressive open-source non-profit community are connected, some through big events, some through shared values, some simply due to long term friendships.

If I had the time I could draw a relationship graph that starts with events like Planetwork and Bioneers, and connects to people like Jim Fournier and Elizabeth Thompson (who did Planetwork), Ben Discoe (vterrain), Doug Engelbart (modern computers), Kaliya Hamlin (identity), Brad DeGraf (smartocracy) and Jon Ramer (Interra), Daniel Ben-Horin (Compumentor), Howard Rheingold (smartmobs), Steward Brand (whole earth catalog), Danny Hillis (various things), Paul and many many others.

It was in fact this recognition of the value of connections in this specific community that spurred the now broader open identity movement.

These folks all represent a wave of a kind of civic activism. Unifying events such as Bioneers and Planetwork moved in the background to help bring these voices together. Early technology projects like “The Well” also were key:

http://www.planetwork.net/2000conf/ http://www.bioneers.org/conference http://www.well.com/

If you’re interested in the non-profit sector there are even now upcoming events in this family, and there are opportunities to participate:

http://www.bioneers.org/conference http://www.techsoup.org/fb/index.cfm?fuseaction=forums.showSingleTopic&id=67308&forum=2068&cid=117 http://www.netsquared.org/

[ Net2 is an interesting event that is occurring at the same time as Where 2.0 - for those of you less focused on geekery you may even want to select for this instead. Or you can all come to WhereCamp without temporal conflict. ]

If you look even further in the credits of “Blessed Unrest” you start to see some of the code lifters – people like “Oz Basirir” and “Noel Tarnoff”. The actual developers who built WiserEarth, and who are in a way related to a technical enthusiasm that you see in the CivicSpace, OpenLayers, FireFox and OpenStreetMap community. The same is true for the “Web Collective” Seattle based developer community that built Boston Community Change for Interra. And the same values show up in CivicActions who built http://algore.org . There is a network here of people (of whom I’ve only mentioned the smallest portion of that I happen to know about) who are active in one way or another, in pragmatic, non-violent analysis, consensus and tools building for what they see as good.

These kinds of people all represent an enabled and networked community that somehow has a “for good” philosophy ingrained in them. Everything they do is open-source, they literally just give it away and yet still make a living. This may all be just an attempt to create “durable and reproducible works”; purely a technical optimization that cannot be bothered with the inconsistencies and liabilities of ownership – or it could be a deeper sense of right and wrong.

Blessed Thoughts

It may very well be a mixture of European and native values that eventually comes to define the resurgence of environmental awareness. Influencing Greely, Watkins, Thoreau, Muir, Pinchot, Roosevelt, Emerson and others who define the early environmental and civil society movements. [ See "The Pathless Way" ].

That environmental movement is still here, it is starting to self-organize rapidly and Paul Hawken has hope that it will counter what we are facing. I personally am still concerned that it is completely dwarfed by the industrial machinery and the looming environmental crisis.

The problem is that it is not business as usual. Civilizations trundle along through many imagined crises but this time we are facing challenges that will absolutely end our way of life within decades. There is a naivite about what happens when civilizations hit resource walls. Any individual wealth we have is basically irrelevant when effectively the air is going to be sucked out of the room.

The problem is not even with nature or with our behaviour but with our collective intellect.

Computationally we simply don’t have the ability to reason about the challenge gradient facing us quickly enough in a top-down manner. The challenges are big enough, fast moving enough that they overwhelm our ability to reason. As humans we often codify reasoning into habit so that we can deal with more situations more quickly; here we need to get beyond formula, to be fully present in the moment, to reason fully about the situations in real-time and not simply resort to autonomic response. To do that we need more computational muscle than we have; not necessarily even in terms of metal, but in terms of software and social structures that let us do decision making better.

If we think about the big slow moving institutions; the federal government, the scientific agencies that advise government and attempts to influence what is still largely a politically driven process rather than a science based process, with endless positioning, lobbying, bickering, compromises and distractions that drive the direction of our civilization – one can see we’re not likely going to succeed. We’re going to make incremental small improvements to the direction of this machinery, fail to cut back resource use quickly enough, and crash into a resource wall, just like so many smaller civilizations, simulations and games do. There’s no reason why we should think of ourselves as exceptions to the sharply non-linear inflection points that characterize many other complex situations. Things often approach self-induced criticalities and crash-out; it is totally routine.

We have no idea when we will actually hit the resource exhaustion wall. We should have reasonable awareness at the very least. The world envisioned by “1491″ came to a balance as we have not yet; even if that vision is idealistic it feels like what we should strive for.

There is either a sense of ignorance or despair about this crisis. Many of us tend to be extremely cynical by nature anyway; as the world shovels more noise in our faces we simply raise the bar on what we deem acceptable levels of devastation. We are also easily distracted, working to protect kin more so than biodiversity; fretting over starving children more so than our entire foundations being swept away.

We do have tremendous collective reasoning capability. About the only thing moving as fast as the rate of destruction is the rate of growth of the Internet, and the possibility for some kind of intelligent group based decision making to come out of it. This was Jim Fournier’s thesis when he started PlanetWork and it seems to be a valid one; although precisely how a large network of connected people translates from endless hyperglossia to actual progress remains to be seen.

Whatever the solution is – it is still not here.


The natives of “1491″ occupied the same land as us, had similar population sizes to us yet applied totally different technologies, a totally different set of hard earned insights, and had totally different outcomes.

We’ve been allowed to do something different because we don’t need nature, all we need is oil. As “Omnivore’s Dilemma” points out, oil has taken the place of the sun and natural process. Unlike the sun we’ve been able to turn up the velocity of consumption.

Like ants at the sugar-pile we’ve stopped gardening a nature we do not need and have just begun refactoring it as suits our whim. We’ve unrolled the previously closed loops of natural agricultural processes and started to diverge increasingly from our own biological foundation.

In doing so a kind of evil has slipped into the land. As we stop needing nature we start to tear off our skin. Today we live in a perpetually revolving media carnival of grotesqueries and indignities such as Bhophal, Chernobyl, Valdez… We live in little white drywalled jails on black asphalt pavilions that are distant from any real or green living spaces. Most of us live lives that are isolated and basically purposeless, selfish, banal and meaningless, where we don’t even know our neighbours, where we are unwoven from the fabric.

We’re prey to a kind of infernal machine of our own making.

We cannot plant our own gardens, many of us don’t even have any rights on the soil we live over. Often as not that soil is paved. Instead we fixate on optimistic or wishful thinking, trying to desperately cash out. In effect serfs. How many friends do you know who just want to be rich? Or who just want to be able to buy that house in San Francisco? Who can’t even see that we could be rich if we could think bigger.

Everything about oil culture is one of industrialized process powered externally. Because we don’t create power locally we separate production from consumption. We buy into that industrialized process becoming fragile and exposed to the vagaries of change. We practice industrialized consumption, industrialized religion and find our vacation escape in conveyer belt ‘Conde Naste’ experiences (that all by themselves are in no small way a special evil) rather than just living in our own self-created shared paradise.

And outside of the west the media reports huge suffering. A suffering absolutely connected to our actions.

Granted nobody has a divine right to life: the life of a system often seems to involve death and cruelty to individuals. A morality based on a “calculus of suffering” is futile – suffering is a fact of life. But perhaps life doesn’t need to be quite so cruel and diminishing. We can afford to do better and do less harm. What most of us begrudge is the arbitrary, grotesque nature of the kinds of suffering we see today; mass starvation, genocide, poison.

And yet we continue to buy into these systems because they seem to reward us – because true costs are deferred for a few centuries.

It is like the ultimate faustian bargan; if we die before our debts are due, we’ve won. It’s like maxing out your credit card and escaping into a fantastical afterlife free of debt collectors.

By drawing from oil reserves we appear to be getting more for less work. If a man comes to a people and starves half and gives their wealth to the other half, then that man has the support of the wealthy half. Here nature itself gets short shrift. The reason LETS (Local Economic Currencies) and Coops fail is that they have trouble competing against a dollar that offers a lifestyle backed by free energy. The cost, quality, diversity, marketing and packaging of dollar based goods appears to be superior.

Oil was also part of my own life. Growing up in Alberta was very much a case of being indoctrinated in Big Oil. Through my childhood I shuttling back and forth between parents living in Saskatchewan and Alberta. Even my first programming gigs were writing farm software for industrial farming operations and drill stem test analysis software for wildcatting operations.

Even in Alberta, the richest province in Canada, the landscape has changed yet again, and within my working lifetime. Alberta has very little wildcatting now and has shifted to oil-sands at questionable return on investment:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Athabasca_Tar_Sands http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2006/01/20/60minutes/main1225184.shtml http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2005/05/22/MNG46CMUPL60.DTL

There’s a ’1984′ quality where even our memories of place are rewritten. It seems to apply when I think back about growing up in Canada. Marketing boards in the 1970′s and 1980′s helped shape my childhood perception of the bounty and necessity of industrial farming. We didn’t have any deep well of culture; the whole province wasn’t even incorporated until 1905 and everybody who was there seemed to have arrived like a tabula rasa. A reductionist even sloganesque philosophy stepped into the vacuum.

It is hard to even shake off slogans now even knowing better, even knowing that there is a deeper and even more beautiful fugue beneath. That we lived on very old bones.

The lesson from “Omnivore’s Dilemma” in turn is that we should rewrite these stories. We should think of ourselves as inheriting a legacy of these ancient Americans and try to apply practices that respect nature. We can call it nano-technology if we want to.

“Blessed Unrest” suggests that we are in fact starting to rewrite those stories.

It still feels like an uphill battle. It feels like the civil society needs to engage with teeth. To actually have a real power to make change rather than just the hopeful or wishful thinking of a hippie army.

Eventually it will be necessary to remove many of the sclerotic industrial agricultural institutions we’ve built. But nobody is going to have the stomach for that pain unless the rewards are totally clear. There are even laws that prevent innovation, that legislate how farms are run. There are farming organizations with vested interests in the status quo; that constantly rewrite the legal landscape away from competing ventures. Reading the case of Monsanto itself is enough to make ones blood boil.

As a simplistic maxim: new things succeed when they are so rewarding, so vastly superior, that they switch people away from old things. It’s not a case of stopping old vices but starting new more powerful ones.

It is intriguing that Americans often seem consumed by fear, consumed by the need to protect and preserve their own lives, and in that fear they fail to hold the line for a broader planetary civilization, preferring to instead break ranks and defend only themselves no matter what the consequences for anybody else on earth.

Why are we so fearful? My bubble-gum psychology is to suggest that there may be a kind of Paulo Freire maxim at work where “the oppressor and the oppressed are both trapped in their roles”. We need to learn not to be angry or afraid of each other or other countries but to recognize there is a “third force” that traps us all. For people who have grown up and lived in the US they sometimes don’t realize just the kinds of local environmental pressures people around the world face. Saber rattling is an indicator of local stresses more so than any overt hostility I believe. The problem today is that with nuclear risks saber rattling is dangerous. And at the same time one doesn’t want to create self-induced criticalities; as the US Forestry Management Service found out when they worked so hard to suppress forest fires (which then eventually led to a build-up of undergrowth and even larger fires).

Local food webs could perhaps have a calming effect on stress behavior; both personally and at a broader level. If personal risk of dying of starvation is lowered, and dependence on oil mitigated, then those urges to inflict harm on others may be dampened as well.

In many ways closing the loops again, living locally, consuming locally, producing locally all helps to push against oil. Part of what “place making” might mean is envisioning how to close those loops; to hold a vision of the land so strongly that we don’t forget it again.

Place Making Redux

We have unrecognized and forgotten heroic powers. We can do more than simply comment on the land but can actually rewrite the landscape. In many ways the real landscape is as malleable as the digital landscape. Whatever bizarre delusion we’re under that this is a conservative struggle or a liberal struggle, or that we’re paralyzed, or that we are facing final end days is a kind of psychosis. We can act more effectively.

It’s also clear that there’s really only one goal that we should all be pursuing, which is to make the planet healthy. And if it is healthy to at least assert that fact instead of being so unsure and at risk as we are now. This is a longer term kind of goal. (When you don’t have kids you can’t really even appreciate what it is like to have a longer term concern in some ways, or even the idea of compromise, and I suspect many humanists and environmentalists are people with families).

It feels like we should be living our beliefs in some ways.

Food seems like the starting point. In food even the simple act of eating well by itself tugs on so many other things that it almost demands a rewrite of personal lifestyles.

As individuals we should only eat local food, and transparently processed foods. We therefore need to live near farms or purchase from farmer co-ops. We should become more involved with food, taking vacation opportunities to farms instead of to some Conde Nasty beach resort. There’s almost an implied need to live in intentional communities where food and other labour can be distributed; and that refactors divisive urban landscapes. Almost nobody can survive by themselves and eat locally and still have time for anything else. That means we have to be able to deal with more complicated social structures than many of us do now. Separately it means applying the best formal metrics to proving that these approaches are more efficient. Beyond this we should push back on law, to have laws passed that reflect the biases of local food. We have to rewrite the physics away from industrial farming.

We should leverage digital technology. Yes map the locations of food cooperatives. But also get beyond just reporting what is. Build just-in-time spatial brokerages that help people make decisions more quickly and effectively than CraigsList and EBay do. Do local micro advertising. Invert the Google model so that you express something that you want, and people come to you rather than you having to search for it over and over like an idiot. Build signaling networks so that people can listen to a geography or community and so that voices can be heard better. Often if it cannot be Googled it does not exist – fix that by pinning ideas to places – geo-locate your blog posts. Build transparency by place sharing so that diseased corporations cannot hide their activity. Build huge community owned place aggregators to back all these efforts. Get beyond tagging and build pure relationships between things. These tools should have been out years ago.

There is at the very least a “tail wags dog” effect in place sharing. Reporting on a place like any reporting sometimes warps that place as attention is drawn to it.

One can start to make places exist, literally defining what you want to exist. With enough attention and focus drawn to something, in the right kinds of appropriately wealthy forums, those things could begin to exist. Upcoming.org has a feature that lets people join events that they “want to exist” and this is similar.

Beyond even that I still feel that we need to do predictive simulations of the known rules and relationships that govern a watershed and communities in watersheds. We need to get beyond 2d red dot syndrome, or static 3d, or even simplistic historical time models, but actually start to express digital models that can capture the future.

We need to move to not just a “Wiser Earth” or “Encyclopedia of Life” style compendium of dry facts but a “relationship wiki” or a “constraint wiki” of the relationship between facts. Computers can help weigh decisions if constraints are formal and this could help us avoid some of the worst side-effects of our decision making.

Recently I had a chance to talk to Marc Davis at Yahoo!. It turns out that like Brad DeGraf and like Mike Liebhold that he too was also involved in early Buckminister Fuller visioning GeoScope projects. There’s a hugely energetic and community of strong wills that want to see stuff like this happen; they’re engaged and are doing it in some respects. I’m sure Where 2.0 will have it’s share of noise and announcements. But the simple metric is “is your daily quality of life improved?” and until that’s done there’s still an opportunity to do something relevant.

I would have called this all Civilization 2.0 but some dude at O’Reilly stole the idea:

Tor Nørretranders - Civilization 2.0

( Maybe it should be called “web 2.0″ 2.0 . )

Again I point out Luis von Ahn’s work; if we can make it fun people will do it. People will groom these virtual gardens.

We can imagine an internet that stretches from a virtual space into a real space. Like language or like ‘life’ having no clear boundary between it and what it depends on. That speaks about place and gets beyond “finding the most relevant places” but that actually “makes places” come to exist by the intensity of focus. That continues to be owned by everybody, where children, aged, incapacitated, prisoners, foreigners, citizens, governments and corporations all vote with their attention on a level playing field based on the merit of ideas – not just with powers they have to deny others participation.


I have put up a wiki here if you want to talk about this more, provide links or the like:


Also I have been bookmarking under place+making:



The Omnivore’s Dilemma Michael Pollan http://www.amazon.com/Omnivores-Dilemma-Natural-History-Meals/dp/1594200823/ref=pd_bbs_1/002-5151446-0250450?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1178821767&sr=8-1

In the absence of the Sacred Jerry Mander tp://www.amazon.com/Absence-Sacred-Jerry-Mander/dp/0844669512/ref=sr_1_1/002-5151446-0250450?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1178821819&sr=1-1

Endgame Derrick Jensen Note that ‘green anarchy’ issue 17 summer 2004 has a Derrick Jensen interview. http://www.amazon.com/Endgame-Resistance-Derrick-Jensen/dp/1583227245/ref=pd_bxgy_b_img_b/002-5151446-0250450

1491 Charles C. Mann http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_ss_b/002-7279063-7356811?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=1491&Go.x=0&Go.y=0&Go=Go

Collapse Jared Diamond http://www.amazon.com/Collapse-Societies-Choose-Fail-Succeed/dp/0143036556/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1/002-5151446-0250450?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1178821867&sr=1-1

Encyclopedia of Life Project E.O. Wilson


Blessed Unrest Wiser Earth Paul Hawken and friends http://www.amazon.com/Blessed-Unrest-Largest-Movement-Coming/dp/0670038520/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1/002-5151446-0250450?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1178822362&sr=1-1

Field Notes from a Catastrophe Elizabeth Kolbert http://www.amazon.com/Field-Notes-Catastrophe-Nature-Climate/dp/1596911301/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1/002-5151446-0250450?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1178822225&sr=8-1

The Pathless Way Michael Cohen on John Muir’s life http://www.amazon.com/Pathless-Way-John-American-Wilderness/dp/0299097242/ref=sr_1_1/002-5151446-0250450?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1178823440&sr=8-1

The Singularity is coming Ray Kurzweil http://www.amazon.com/Singularity-Near-Humans-Transcend-Biology/dp/0143037889/ref=sr_1_1/002-5151446-0250450?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1178821795&sr=1-1

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