Sick from Global Warming? So is this
butterfly. The cure? Autopoiesis (the opposite of automobile…)
Image © Val Druguet.
8: What 'Nature' for the Capital of the World ?
A note to New Yorkers on the root causes of Global Warming
and the future, happy ending to the industrial revolution.
note: The following is an excerpt from part 1 of a two
part lecture series given at the Graduate Center of
The City University of New York. Part 2 in next month's
1. The importance of paradigms
In case you were wondering how you might do your part
in solving the current climate crisis, first consider
exploring the real nature of the disease - not just
the symptoms. Science says: more important than the
answers is asking the right questions. We can start
by perusing New York City (I.e.: the 'capital of the
world') as the ultimate case study in human industrial
ecology and its disastrous effects on the planet. We
quickly see how Global warming is not just about 'limiting
carbon emissions'. Global Warming represents the visible
tip of an even greater and more complex and problematic,
societal paradigm. It calls into question our very civilization,
and how we organize ourselves and our communities, how
we grow and distribute our food, what we qualify as
growth and wealth. It challenges the very nature and
philosophical premises of our expansionist economy.
Indeed, species loss and climate change reveal more
than SUV's and Bushonomics- they're a Rorschach test
for the fundamental flaws and pathology of our own brainchild
- the industrial revolution, and its capital, the city.
3. Natural premises
"The real voyage of discovery lies not in seeking new
places but in seeing with new eyes." - Marcel Proust
Before moving to New York 4 yrs ago I lived and worked
mostly in the rain and cloud forests of Venezuela, Peru
and the Dominican Republic, as a tropical ecologist.
For seven years there I studied many of the birds, insects,
mammals, plants - and their relationship to people.
Were they used for food ? Were they important references
points in a people's culture, or knowledge system ?
The forest was both my office and my home. My environment.
A 'wilderness' of hundreds of thousands of species of
plants and animals, including top of the food-chain
predators. Including humans.
Then, in 2003, I was invited to New York, invited to
study urban ecology for this non- profit environmental
organization, NNYN. I thought my life would change,
dramatically. It didn't.
I just switched jungles - from the primeval to the urban.
Here in the City I do exactly what I used to do in South
America - study plants, animals…and their connection
to people. Ecology, the study of relationships.
Nature in New York ? It came as sort of a surprise to
me, as well. To bump into coyotes in the Bronx, Peregrine
falcons on Wall street, White-tailed deer in the heart
of Queens, Harp Seals out sunning themselves (look like
sausages) on pier 26 in Tribeca…To find wildflowers
like yellow violet, Dutchman's breeches on the boulder-strewn
slopes of Inwood Park. The one billion year old gneiss,
the 500 000 year old Schist (yep, rocks are part of
nature too!). I was truly amazed. I still am. I can
gawk at the feathery elegance of snowy egrets alighting
like snowflakes on their recently colonized urban turf
-North and South Brother, Hoffman and Canarsie Pol -
the secret islands of New York Harbor. I can ogle at
the wintering snow geese in Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge
- a stone's throw from JFK. I can take my students out
there (and elsewhere), so they too can stare and wonder
at 'big birds' the like of osprey that return each spring
from the Amazon basin - to nest in the relic salt-marshes
of primordial 'New York'.
Today, in the so-called 'Capital of the world', Val
and I can count and film neotropical songbirds that
we have known and studied in the Amazon and the Caribbean;
we can watch them migrate every spring through Prospect
park, Central Park, alighting on oak trees, feeding
on local geometrid worms and others morsels of New York's
own, homegrown biodiversity, before continuing north
to the forests of New England and Canada. We can travel
the earth with these birds, and feel all the more deeply
connected and commited to them.
In New York we can also go fishing for 'fresh water'
eels that were born thousands of miles away in the middle
of the Atlantic and that 'come home to roost' in the
upper reaches of the Hudson, using NY harbor as a transit
hub in their life long voyage from salt water to fresh.
From one world to the next.
Again, I had originally (for a second, at least) expected
nothing more than a cliché - a few rats and a bundle
of pigeons in an otherwise hyper-hygienic, anesthetized
world - Disney land, without the parking. Or Boston.
Instead, approximately 3000 documented plant species
and an estimated 10 000 animal species within the contours
of the 5 borough Apple. Some native, some foreign. Some
elevated to sex symbol status (Pale Male), others threatening
and reviled (Poison Ivy, Asian Longhorn, Garlic Mustard…).
Most of them, ignored, or simply unknown.!
Ironic that New York would have such diversity, probably
one of the highest for a metropolis its size. To know
that within this glitzy, rumbling homage to technology
and progress and cultural erection; within this global,
galactic center of more than 9 million, one can (still)
find such variety of wildlife - throbbing, foaming,
so tantalizing and exciting, in color, shape, form,
and behavior, will always tickle me. Nature in this
city, everywhere in the city, is an earthquake to the
brain. A time bomb ticking away in the western ego.
It is provocative; it contradicts the unspoken idea
of civilization. As far as reminders go (that we're
ephemeral, lucky at best), NY's pervasive diversity
of species, and abundance, their resilience within this
shiny apex of so called human 'superiority' have a spooky
flavor of audacity, and predatorial resolve. Of power,
absolute; here the wild demonstrates the kind of aloof
patience needed to hold out while one of nature's dominant
figures, the species Homo sapiens, chokes itself to
death. Nature bats last. Like a feline. One strike and
Of course, but this will not come as much of a surprise,
I have also been dumfounded by New-Yorkers themselves.
Notably, by a small microcosm of 'naturalists' in this
'City of specialists', who are uncannily aware of their
biological surroundings. The birders, the butterfly-ers,
the botany nerds. The stargazers. The eccentric, like
Pete 'the reptile man' Warny. The elders, Don Riepe
and Guy Tudor. The humble and wise - meet Mike Fellar,
chief naturalist of NYC's Parks Department.
I have a particular soft spot for the City's thousands
of anglers, who come from all over the world, speaking
as many as 120 different languages and carrying with
them as many cultures. They rim the city's shores -
they look outwards towards the bay, the estuary, the
harbor; inwards towards the lakes, ponds, remaining
rivers and streams. Armed with rods, tackle, bait, nets,
technique. People who know, regardless of their country
of origin, how to fish in the Hudson, the estuary, and
all of what they are catching. Hunter-gatherers, every
single one of them !
I should know, I have lived with Hunter-gatherers in
the Amazon. You won't find people more endowed with
ecological literacy and a complete awareness of their
surroundings. People who can read the weather, interpret
the cycles of the moon, the tides, the pulsating and
erratic mood swings of the ocean, the water, the devious
stillness of a pond's surface.
So be it. The 'Nature of New York' is alive and kicking,
teeming within the interstitial bubbles of biology that
seem to defy the so called impervious cover of the grid.
As if erupting from the womb of the earth (a rather
respectable planet whom I usually honor and refer to
as a 4,6 billion year old decidedly pregnant and productive
sphere of rock to which, maybe, cities, after all, are
just another litter of offspring themselves…).
4. Redefining nature, redefining ourselves
To know and to love and to study Nature in New York?
Have I lost it? Most urbanites would readily admit (scream),
that squirrels are aggressive and obsequious and raccoons
wretched and full of rabies and that nature stinks.
I've had students allergic to grass, literally. Others
have never sat their 'sweet ass on a rock before'. Others
still that claim that food can 'no way' be defined as
nature (I guess children nowadays chew on plastic and
metal and drink oil and, well, like the rest of us,
produce just as much gas). 'Nature doesn't even belong
here!'. I've heard them whine, again and again and again.
To all, I ask, I plead, I beg: "Think again!" Life is
everywhere. It has been around for more than 4 billion
years. It has embraced the entire planet. It has known
many stages, flowered into modern-day rainforests, tropical
savannas, coral reefs, arctic tundra, deep-sea vents.
It reaches outwards, upwards, downwards; it can migrate
thousands of miles to and fro, swap continents, stitch
entire landmasses and oceans together. From within each
and every living cell, life's sole project is to EXPAND,
to head in all directions, squeezing itself through
every nook and cranny, to every volcano's rim, exploding
onto any plain… Will slam-dunk every cornice of every
building (Confer Pale Male's now infamous 5th avenue
palace of sticks)!
For sure, life reaches peak diversity at the equator
(with millions of species per square inch of rainforest);
but it can also survive as anaerobic bacteria 3 km beneath
the earth's surface (a.k.a. SLIME!), or as microscopic
springtails on the icy plains of Antarctica. Or as bedbugs
in your sheets. Wild turkeys in Riverside Park. As millions
of migratory shad that swim past Battery Park, in April,
en route to spawn further up the Hudson river. As Monarch
butterflies bouncing past your window, in the fall,
thru Midtown (can be seen at top of Empire State Building),
en route from Canada to Mexico. With all due respect,
even you are part of nature.
When I pronounce the pleasantly oxymoronic "Nature of
New York", I am naturally referring to the nature within.
The birds and the bees (there are plenty of these, by
the way - they have their hives on rooftops, radiate
up to 3 miles a day in search of flowers to fertilize
- and pollen to retrieve - in the constellation of parks
and salting of window sills that pepper the Big Apple).
I'm talking about the full bestiary, the multiple beasts,
plants and micro-organisms that call New York City their
home. Every living species known to have been documented
in the Big Apple. But by 'nature' (from the Latin 'to
be born'), I also refer to the nature of the relationship
- or ecology- that connects a species to its environment,
its natural household. I refer to the fact that any
organism's presence here (including ours) is ultimately
dictated as much by climate as it is determined by the
lay of the land, the type of rocks, soil, nutrients
and amount and type of water (salt or fresh ?) that
constitute life's medium in and around the city. I refer
of course to the entire life matrix of the city itself
- to our ecology (from the Greek Oikos, meaning home,
And by way of logic, I refer inevitably to the nature
without. The Bigger picture. To all those life forms
and citizens of the planet that sustain our city by
simply producing our fresh air and water, or, in the
case of other humans, those that provide us with resources
and energy by mining or farming the earth on the opposite
side of the globe. That fresh bundle of 'organic' raspberries
at WholeFoods? Comes from Chile, from China. The oil
in your gas tank? Please.
Get the Bigger Picture. Meet planet earth, to whom the
city owes everything and on whom the city, ultimately,
depends. Just how would one qualify and quantify New
York's reliance on the rest of the planet? Let us review
the nature of our umbilical cord.
Let's start with some simple examples: the migratory
birds that fly through our city in May; the nutrients
that flow through our Hudson's water; the people that
come to this city from the across the world, from nations
rich and poor, as if drawn to a magnet, as if the entire
world was tributary to Gotham; the heat that flows though
our gas stoves, the electrons and wave frequencies that
enable our cable TV's and electrical wirings and cell
phones; the photons of the sun that flow through our
photosynthetic elm, oak and maple trees - henceforth
to squirrel and hawk; through our estuary's diatoms
- henceforth to zooplankton, to silverside, to black-crowned
All of this and much more comes to us, traverses us,
keeps us afloat. The world is our lifeblood. Conversely,
our dependencies on the world are infinite and absolute.
Consider it this way: The planet itself is a giant food
web, a food web fueled by matter and energy - and all
of this 'essergy' we need as a species to survive comes
from somewhere. And all of it is headed somewhere. And
some of it, indeed, comes through New York. Be it for
a second, a day, a week, or a lifetime. The moment it
enters our city, our home, it's like a shot of oxygen-rich
blood to the brain; if its an electron it turns on our
lights, if it's a bird it might disperse our seeds,
if it's a slice of bread it feeds us; as it flows though
our city streets and the cracks in our pavement it keeps
us alive. 'It' is the universe. Matter organized, reshuffled,
folded into something scientists call "complexity".
New York City, it so happens, is just one of many earthly
places, a place with its own specific 'ecology', its
own galaxy of relationships to the world. Just one in
a gazillion planetary life-nodes through which gush
stampedes of organisms, blasts of particles, rivers
of nutrients and molecules. All of it energy, with a
capital E. The moment it arrives here, it enlivens -
and illuminates - our city. It turns us on. 'It' gives
us life. Thank you, sweet universe.
Finally, by the 'Nature of New York', I imply - sardonically-
'The Nature of the beast' itself. This city is like
Gargantua on rBGH, a colossus of want. Ecologically
speaking, a megamungously voracious, over-the-top, waste-producing
black hole sucking in fuel and food at the supersonic
speed of FedEx, UPS, diesel trucks and the information
highway. The 'Jabba' of all Huts, defecating and exporting
50 000 tons of waste a day. Who pays?
Where do we get our grub ? Our water ? What is our city's
'trophic and entropic' relationship to the world? Its
footprint? Its shadow? Its metabolic ties to the rest
of our planet ?
Go to myfootprint.org
and calculate your own footprint. Multiply by 16 million.
Here we include the tri-state, statistical metropolis,
because NYC's suburbs cannot be considered separately
- downtown and suburb are codependent, economically,
Our city has two metabolisms, two 'appetites' - one
industrial, the other biological. It feeds off of fossil
fuel, and requires more than 16 million of flesh and
blood - that's you and me; obedient, functioning units
of production and consumption. Human resources.
5. The problem (is one of perception)
Cities such as New York are themselves outgrowths of
planet earth; they just so happen to be the technological
constructs of a particularly clever species, itself
a progeny of Life : Homo sapiens. Cities are not only
part of nature, they are nature. They are not distinct
from the environment. They are of the environment. Some
might say, the environment. Wilderness ? Maybe not,
but alive nonetheless, nested within the biosphere.
Culture, as one philosopher once coined it, is man's
contribution to the environment.
Perhaps the reason people are surprised to hear of 'wildlife'
in the 'city', or of the 'city as nature' is that we
ourselves are symptoms of our own culture, products
of our belief system(s). Let me explain: generally speaking
our societies are accustomed to thinking in binary terms
of 'wilderness versus civilization', 'biology versus
culture', 'man versus nature', 'city versus country',
'natural versus artificial'. Blame it on history, Descartes,
Abrahamic religions, the enlightenment,capitalism, science,
the Industrial revolution (of which New York is very
much a product), the human brain….whatever. In our very
patriarchal western world, mind is seen (albeit subconsciously)
as superior to body, just as man is considered superior
to nature -and to women. Both are limitless and must
be 'labored', worked over in order to achieve real fertility,
enlightenment, and one day maybe, heaven itself (for
more of the same, read Carolyn Merchant's 'Reinventing
Eden'). Similarly, technology is considered an improvement
on life, machine as superior to organism, progress to
cave art, work to play, etc. Hence the disconnect, the
divide. The delusion. The pathology.
6. The solution - a question of vision
"The man at the back has a question. His tongue's involved
with solutions" - Echo and The Bunnymen.
Today, quite fortunately, the science of ecology allows
us to think in a new light. From a biological standpoint,
cities are not distinct from nature, they are simply
located at one, distal and relatively sterilizing end
of the life continuum, with wilderness and species richness
lying at the other, diametrically opposite end (even
though the word wilderness as 'area devoid of human
impact' is itself in dispute, since modern humans have
by now impacted, polluted, transformed in one way or
another almost every square mile of planetary real-estate
in the past 100 000 years of our history). A few examples
of our 'dominion': the atmosphere has been 'heated'
ever since the invention and widespread use of fire
in prehistoric times. Cities, industrial society, modern
day Global Warming are but the apex of that same, combustive
trend. Toxic particulates have by now smeared the entire
planetary surface and atmosphere, they have spread helter-skelter,
shotgun-style, via the weather, transported by atmospheric
and oceanic currents, the water cycle, or migratory
animals. And even way out yonder, in the center of the
oceans, plankton have been found with micro-particles
of plastic nestled within their gut. If nature is everywhere,
so are humans. Now more than ever perhaps, the boundaries
been 'man' and 'nature' have been blurred.
What remains is a difference of functionality. Ecologists
today see the world in terms of functional versus dysfunctional
systems. True growth versus pseudo-growth, self-sustainability
versus self-destruction. Explanation: pristine, living
ecosystems such as forests, salt marshes, meadows, streams
are functional in the sense that they are self-organizing,
self-sustaining, growing communities of animal and plants
species, animated by constant energy flows and nutrient
cycles, held together (just like the cells of your body)
by a hyper-complex web of processes that engage molecules,
atoms - matter and energy. They are known as self-creating,
or autopoietic, systems. They are extremely dynamic.
They are autonomous and self-referential. Of course,
these systems interact with their environment (by using
solar energy, exchanging gases and molecules with the
atmosphere, recycling nutrients), yet to all intents
and purposes they maintain their autonomy, their structure.
A self-organizing system 'knows' what it needs to import
and export in order to maintain itself, renew itself,
grow, change and ultimately, evolve. Accordingly, ecosystems,
when 'left alone', grow from within, endogenously. They
shape themselves outwards.
So does life as a whole. The biosphere as we know it.
Some ecologists have even theorized that the planet
itself constitutes a single, autopoietic, meta-organism.
A living system, in and of itself, held together by
the 'web' of life. This is known as the Gaia hypothesis.
One very important thing to remember is that within
functional, self-organizing ecosystems each component
participates in the production of other components.
Every organism's waste in another's food. One's death
is another's birth. All is recycled. The system as a
whole cannot 'pollute'. Because everything in the system
is about renewal, about resource (from the Latin resurgere,
'to rise again'), about self repair, and self-healing.
In sum, an autopoietic system is both the producer and
the product. Independent, yet open to interaction with
the universe at large. Open to change and evolution.
When we talk about ecological stability, we talk about
the intrinsic ability of ecosystems (and that of their
constituent species) to adapt and respond. Hence an
ecosystem's primordial functionality, resilience, health
and, in the words of Ecologist and physicist Vandana
Shiva, its 'biological freedom'.
No such luck for cities. In their current industrial
form, cities are allopoietic (as are their immediate
corollaries: suburbs, industrial agriculture and the
expansionist economy as a whole). They are inherently
dysfunctional. Self destructive. In their current state,
they cannot self-organize, self-sustain, self-repair,
recycle - nor do they have the capacity to grow endogenously.
We have to do it for them. Like machines, and the high
entropy design of the industrial revolution that spawned
them, cities refer to functions determined and given
from outside, such as the production of a given output.
In the case of New York City, output can mean economic
capital. It can also mean wealth's collateral: the exhaust
from the combustion of resources that produced the capital
in the first place, i.e.: all the non-recyclable waste,
the ozone pollution, the excess CO2, the nitrous oxide,
the particulates …all the ingredients for cancer and
Accordingly, like all mechanical systems, cities cannot
grow from within. Nor can they evolve, miraculously,
by themselves, overnight, to be 'functional', or 'good'.
They are made, put together from the outside, with hammer
and nail, organized and sustained by us - their master
and slave(the 'allo' in allopoietic). Cities are high
maintenance. They depend on us and the world for everything.
They require phenomenal amounts of repair, attention,
peoplepower, matter (food and materials), water and
energy. They divert huge amounts of natural resources,
they take from the hinterland, they are literally and
quite physically sucking the global autopoietic system
Biodiversity loss and ecosystem depletion? The expansionist
economy and its main fuse - the city.
All man-made, carbon-based, combustive machines as we
know them are intrinsically ecocidal. Therein lies the
fundamental flaw of the industrial evolution. Modern
cities are just colossal machines made up of smaller
ones. Therein lies the flaw of the contemporary city.
Technically and ecologically speaking, they are parasites,
bloated ticks clinging to the planet's crust, sucking
up sustenance and returning none. Pull the plug and
(And in the event that we do run out of oil, best we
get those wind turbines and solar panels up and running
In sum, when you hear of global warming, loss of biodiversity,
pollution, etc. what you're really hearing is that our
society as a whole is chewing up the biosphere from
within. Devouring it inside out. 'Consumerism consumes
all', Lacan liked to muse. Nihilism, incarnate? More
like 'Autophagy', the art of eating oneself - and succeeding.
Blame it on the steam engine and Thomas Newcomen.
The bottom line, the final diagnosis, is that WE ARE
DYSFUNCTIONAL. Our industrial ecology, per se, is pathogenic.
Global warming, a surface symptom. We must treat the
root cause. If Jane Jacobs was right in saying that
Cities are the obligatory economic engines - or 'CentComs'
- of that lifestyle, then New York City (as Capital
of the world) has had a huge responsibility in helping
to screw up the planet.
The silver lining? Should New York change its inner
'nature', and mature, it could help (very rapidly help)
to shape a cleaner, healthier, i.e.: a more functional,
autopoietic, self-sustaining world.
Ecology, the art of growing up. How to?
Cities can and must play their part.
Let's rewind, one last time: an autopoietic, self-organizing,
living ecosystem (such as a salt-marsh) is a structurally
and functionally diverse 'organic' entity, whereas the
mechanical city, the giant machine, the 'ecosystem of
fire', is a structurally and functionally boring, uniform,
monolithic system that thrives on combustion, throwaway
mechanics and whose primary end product (apart from
pleasure, which can't be banked other than in the shape
of memories) is a stinking wad of non-biodegradable
toxic rubbish. And, whereas self-organizing systems
have the potential to heal themselves and adapt to change,
mechanically organized systems (such as cities) cannot.
In the words of Vandana Shiva, "They break down."
Global Warming ? Global collapse.
It follows that biodiesel won't change a thing, long
term. It will only perpetrate the system, the process,
the consequences. To treat Climate Change by reducing
emissions is about as smart and efficient as plugging
a Salmonella victim's sphincter with a cork and expecting
to cure his/her diarrhea. I'm not being particularly
scatological here: Global Warming and its related symptoms
are the exhaust fumes, the all-degrading cutting-of-the-cheese
of an intrinsically flatulent lifestyle. In the corporate,
industrial world, externality is just a euphemism for
'silent but deadly'. We must change our technology's
diet. Feed it with renewable energy. Adopt the 'Zero
(Come to think of it, my friend Sigmund might have coined
neoliberalism the most anally retentive form of misconduct
known to man. Hoard, then spew).
On a more optimistic note, understand that New York
City - like all cities- can achieve 'cradle to cradle'
sustainability if it chooses to re-enter the food-chain,
by immersing itself and surrounding suburbs and agricultural
hinterland in autopoiesis; i.e.: by using solar and
wind energy and little more, growing its own food (nearby),
recycling all of its water and composting every cubic
inch of its own organic waste. Our motto should no longer
be 'a rising tide lifts all boats' (rather crude in
a post Katrina world), but rather: Waste equals Food.
Thanks to a few forward-thinking New Yorkers, thanks
to the fact that cities as bustling and creative and
energetic as New York are intrinsically transformative
and are thus a locus for foment, programs and projects
and solutions abound that point in the ecological direction
of autopoiesis and functionality: greenroofs, anaerobic
digestion, recycling of all plastic and petrochemicals
within a service and flow 'economy of scope', improved
waste and water management, a renewed ground swell of
programs that seek to reeducate ourselves and more importantly
Btw, thanks to mainstream media for never taking the
time to explain all this. Either it doesn't fit in a
sound bite or it doesn't fit their agenda.
The best news is that contrary to common belief new
technologies need not be invented. They already exist.
In the words of physicist and ecologist Fritjof Capra
" we can [..] model communities after nature's ecosystems,
which are sustainable communities of plants animals
and micro-organisms. Since the outstanding characteristic
of the biosphere is its inherent ability to sustain
life, a sustainable human community must be designed
in such a manner that's its technologies and social
institutions honor, support and cooperate with nature's
inherent ability to sustain life.'
Can technology 'save' our city ? Sure, biotechnology,
life's intrinsic 'chutzpah' if you will. All we have
to do is experience nature and learn from her 'wisdom'.
Promote 'Ecological design'. If you are one such person,
someone as interested as I am in learning from nature's
wisdom, and applying such earth wisdom to our society
and city, thereby leaving our place and world a sustainable
one for our children, then let the 'Nature of New York'
be your guide, your open book of ecological knowledge.
If you think you are totally, beyond-the-point-of-no-return,
ecologically illiterate, do not despair: go to the wildflower
meadow in northern Central Park and watch migrating
monarch butterflies pollinating local goldenrod and
aster. Discover win-win ecology, partnership and collaboration,
pollination, mutualism, emergent properties and the
non-zero sumness of our very first economy - the ecology
of life on earth.
And see you next week, for step two on our way to understanding
-and solving- the biggest challenge yet to face mankind.
Biological freedom, just around the corner.
Dave Rosane and Val Druguet