Sunday, August 26, 2007

Systems vs. ???

(Skip to the part in green if you just want to read the critique)

The three readings, encapsulated by the class handouts and expanded by Hallsmith, function as an indoctrination into thinking about cities, communities, human bodies—anything, really—as systems: evolving, vibrant, intricate webs of interaction that at once defy and define the very patterns of our lives.

The living systems sheet begins by describing the basic tenets of a (sustainable) system, identifying the principles of interdependence, synergy, integrity, and regulation as key components of a living system. The permaculture design principles distilled in the Holmgren handout begin to elaborate the hallmarks of truly sustainable systems; i.e, those that are self-regulating, productive, and frugal.

With those guiding principles in mind, Hallsmith’s reflections on the kinds of systems that comprise life as we know it primes us for a discussion about whether the key players in the city/community system—individuals, organizations/institutions, and government—are helping or hindering the development of sustainable systems. With liberal use of anecdotes, she teases out the underlying systems—some visible, some less so—that are chiefly promulgated by the key players. The reader is encouraged to view the more banal aspects of living, such as working, voting and playing, as more than a series of independent endeavors. These actions, she argues, are irrevocably linked by systems and cycles that have evolved in response to multitudes of economic, social, spiritual and physical needs. Whether the needs of the individual and the community are being met in part, as a whole, or not at all, depends to a great extent on whether the community’s resources and capital reserves are being deployed intelligently and equitably. The best systems, those that foster virtuous cycles and in the end prove sustainable, are the ones that grow out of respect for each other, for providing and accepting feedback, and for using resources without exceeding their capacities.

Of course, it’s easy to see the value of designing sustainable systems, and the simple fluidity of the ideal systems that Hallsmith envisions is incredibly appealing. Why can’t we all just get along, care for each other, contribute to the community in meaningful ways, live frugally, give back, etc? Don’t we all want to be cared for, feel a part of something, have enough to get by, be productive and not destructive? I’m not posing these questions rhetorically or out of cynicism: I mean to say that those are the philosophical questions that seem to be at the heart of sustainable practice. But clearly, those fundamental impulses and desires haven’t produced anything even closely resembling a sustainable city (save a few), nation, or planet. I don’t have an answer to that, but I do know that the simple assumptions upon which Hallsmith bases her sustainable systems and virtuous cycles are not always what we have to work with; to assume them a priori is to problematize the situation not nearly enough.

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