The Nature of Cities

by Jason Godesky

The word civilization comes from the Latin civis, meaning “city.” This curious epiphenomenon of civilization gives us as good a definition for civilization as we could ask for; etymologically and anthropologically, “civilization” means a culture of cities. Civilizations certainly count as complex societies, but we can imagine other kinds of complex societies which, whether or not they prove tenable in reality, would still fail to meet the criteria of civilization, chiefly because they would also lack cities, and all that goes with them. So what do we mean by a “city,” and what makes it so uniquely unsustainable?

Cities typically feature “city life”: the unique social network of bureaucrats, merchants, and a dense human population that arises in such urban centers, but defining a city in such terms seems tautological. No standard definition for “city” (versus other permanent settlements like a “village”) exists. From the American Heritage Dictionary, we get “A center of population, commerce, and culture; a town of significant size and importance.” Archaeologists define a city in terms of population density, with 5,000 or more people living in an at least semi-permanent settlement.

Such definitions try to capture an intuitive understanding that ultimately comes down to an ecological relationship: they point to the city as a unique form of human population density, with a unique relationship to its landbase. In his two-volume book Endgame, Derrick Jensen offers perhaps the best definition of the city to date, in explicitly ecological terms:

I would define a civilization much more precisely, and I believe more usefully, as a culture—that is, a complex of stories, institutions, and artifacts— that both leads to and emerges from the growth of cities (civilization, see civil: from civis, meaning citizen, from Latin civitatis, meaning city-state), with cities being defined—so as to distinguish them from camps, villages, and so on—as people living more or less permanently in one place in densities high enough to require the routine importation of food and other necessities of life. Thus a Tolowa village five hundred years ago where I live in Tu’nes (meadow long in the Tolowa tongue), now called Crescent City, California, would not have been a city, since the Tolowa ate native salmon, clams, deer, huckleberries, and so on, and had no need to bring in food from outside. Thus, under my definition, the Tolowa, because their way of living was not characterized by the growth of city-states, would not have been civilized. On the other hand, the Aztecs were. Their social structure led inevitably to great city-states like Iztapalapa and Tenochtitlán, the latter of which was, when Europeans first encountered it, far larger than any city in Europe, with a population five times that of London or Seville. Shortly before razing Tenochtitlán and slaughtering or enslaving its inhabitants, the explorer and conquistador Hernando Cortés remarked that it was easily the most beautiful city on earth. Beautiful or not, Tenochtitlán required, as do all cities, the (often forced) importation of food and other resources. The story of any civilization is the story of the rise of city-states, which means it is the story of the funneling of resources toward these centers (in order to sustain them and cause them to grow), which means it is the story of an increasing region of unsustainability surrounded by an increasingly exploited countryside.

In the documentary, What a Way to Go: Life at the End of Empire, William Catton (author of Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change) concurs, noting that we can almost define a city as a population that grossly exceeds its local carrying capacity.

To define a city as an ecological phenomenon, we now have several points which our previous definitions reached towards but ultimately failed to bring together satisfactorily, including:

  1. Permanent settlement
  2. A population density that grossly exceeds its local carrying capacity (5,000, for instance, acting as a fairly arbitrary number that would generally meet this criteria; by recognizing this as an ecological relationship, rather than a matter of absolute numbers, we can see that 5,000 acts simply as a rule of thumb for a more important ecological relationship)
  3. As a result of #2, cities require the importation of resources. In former times, a “hinterland” supplied this.

Because of this, cities give rise to civilization: concentration of power and wealth, class society, standing armies and the rest of Vere Gordon Childe’s primary criteria for civilization all follow from meeting the needs of cities, made possible (and in many ways, required by) agriculture. If we accept this definition of a city, then the unsustainability of the city seems tautological—it follows from the very definition of a city.

This has upset some observers, including Ran Prieur, who wrote:

The other night I watched What A Way To Go again, and noticed a sloppy, circular argument about cities: 1) Define a city as requiring the importation of resources. 2) Anything that requires the importation of resources will exhaust its resource base and collapse. 3) Therefore, we must give up living in cities.

A more careful and empowering argument would go like this: 1) Anything that systematically takes more than it gives will exhaust its resource base and collapse. 2) Cities as we know them take more than they give. 3) Therefore, if we want to live in cities, we must reinvent them.

Primitivists like to think that anything that wasn’t done 20,000 years ago cannot be done, or is not worth doing. At the other extreme, the myth of “progress” says that something impossible—eternal increase—is inevitable. I’m trying to find a middle ground. I envision a dynamic future, full of change and experimentation, but stabilized by having no ratcheting increase—no “growth”.

Applying this to urban design, we come up with pretty much what Leopold Kohr envisioned decades ago: a world of small independent city-states, with urban centers supported by surrounding farmland. Integrate some newer and older ideas, and “farming” becomes permaculture and forest gardens and wild lands managed to optimize foraging and hunting. The people in the dense central area have to import food, but they can export their composted waste, as well as providing things that give “civilization” a good name, like complex tools and urban culture.

We already know everything we need to know to do this now, with one exception, the ancient problem that nobody has yet solved: If just one culture falls from stability to “growth,” and starts depleting its landbase, increasing its population, and conquering, what’s to stop that pattern from consuming the whole world like a fire? Tragically, the more we restore the land, grow forests, build topsoil, the bigger that threat becomes.

Let’s take a closer look at this idea. Could our definition straight-jacket “cities” too narrowly? Might we simply need to expand our imagination of what a city could look like?

A crucial distinction divides agriculture from permaculture, namely, the kind of change they effect on their environments. Agriculture cultivates by means of catastrophe, while permaculture (or horticulture) cultivates by means of succession. We can see the clearest difference in their ecological impacts: the first farmers turned the vast cedar forests of Iraq into the desert wasteland we know today, while Indian permaculturalists created the Amazon rainforest and the Great Plains. We can see examples of Indian civilizations, such as the Mexica (Aztec) already mentioned in the quote from Derrick Jensen. But notably, those civilizations did not take part in the great ecological terraforming projects that their tribal, permacultural neighbors undertook. They, like civilizations in the Old World, also created deserts. Why do we find this consistent behavior?

Ran’s critique does make some good and valid points: we know how to cultivate and regenerate soil simultaneously, and such techniques can feed permanent settlements, namely villages. Villages differ from cities in several important ways. For example, they remain within local ecological limits, and even, typically, within the human cognitive limits set by Dunbar’s Number. That said, the reasons for permaculture’s success also limit its ability to scale. The reliance on edge in permaculture means that we can’t simply multiply yields per acre times the number of acres. Permaculture relies on the interaction of ecological zones, and those zones require a certain amount of area simply to remain viable. If a particular permaculture garden relies on a forest edge, then it can’t multiply its acreage into the forest without damaging the forest and destroying the edge it requires. Agriculture, based on catastrophe, works much more simply: if you need more food, you can always just rip up another acre of soil, because agriculture doesn’t rely on ecological relationships, but instead relies on breaking down ecological relationships.

Permaculture also proves difficult to mass-produce or ship very far. That means that human population density must more or less match the nutritional density of permacultural output. Even the most optimistic permacultural advocates, including David Mollison, while they expect permaculture could feed even more people than the current population, also readily admit that doing so would require a much more evenly distributed human population: i.e., the end of cities. Anthropological precedent clearly shows us that while permaculture works well for village life, it does not scale up to the level of cities. To export food to cities requires the raw, absolute production that only agriculture can provide.

Exporting waste to match food intake cannot make a city sustainable, due to the law of conservation of energy. Such an arrangement finds precedent in Chinese “night soil,” and while it can slow the damage of an unsustainable system, it cannot make the system sustainable. Food imported into the city becomes human energy, and the city’s population uses some of that energy for breathing and blood flow and keeping themselves alive. They excrete only a fraction of it as waste. So with each iteration of the cycle, less energy comes back to the “farm” than originally left, so the system still exports the ecological health of the land to keep the city alive.

These factors seem to underline, rather than detract, from our definition of a city. It suggests that the city has fundamental problems, and simply cannot become sustainable without ceasing to exist as a city. Villages certainly show potential for the future, but villages differ from cities in many ways. It also seems worth noting that what Ran calls “things that give ‘civilization’ a good name, like complex tools and urban culture,” do not occur uniquely in civilization, so we have no need to give up such things. While primitive technology does emphasize elegance over complexity, this often results in more effective tools. But city life itself likely makes up the thing most people will miss most of all: the chance to meet many new people, and to engage in the bustle and frenetic energy of the urban setting. For that, primitive societies had festivals and fairs which would bring together all of a region’s tribes and bands in a single place for a short time. They would trade, meet up, sometimes exchange members, get married, and effectively create a temporary, ad hoc city life for a few days, before dispersing again, before they began to have a lasting detrimental impact. That kind of “flash mob” approach to city life strikes a balance between our occasional needs for mass interaction, and the ecological (and psychological) strains that such interactions take. Even if we ignore the ecological implications, most of us eventually become stressed and fatigued from the constant bustle of city life, and eventually seek retreat into a more-than-human world to rejuvenate from that. The festival provides everything we love best about cities, without destroying the land that gives us life, or even outlasting its usefulness when it energizes us, to become the hectic urban trap that ultimately drains us.

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Comments

  1. I anticipated a post of this nature. Thanks for getting on it.

    But I have to say, I agree with Ran. The conservation of energy concern is somewhat moot next to the fact that we do have a steady supply of energy from the sun.

    Now, to say that cities have always been unsustainable is I think legit, and Ran’s initial post I saw as more about definitions than substance. That is, what Ran imagines as ecological cities of the future, I would just call ecological villages, as you may as well, Jason.

    I mean, I’m generally pretty confident that it’s not just an arbitrary attachment to what happened 20,000 years ago that legitimates the primitivist suspicion of more recent developments. It seems far more likely to me that if it could have worked back then, our forager ancestors would have tried it and incorporated it, as they did fire, for example. Like Daniel Quinn says, evolution is not perfect, but damn hard to improve on. Maybe we can refine our talents and capacities more, and likely we will if we emerge from this mess. But my general outlook is that what happened 20,000 years ago, for example, happened for a reason, and moving beyond it is probably constrained in certain ways for very real and legitimate reasons beyond philosophical or ideological attachment.

    On the other hand, we don’t know if we don’t try, so I’m all for our future primitive descendents trying stuff. Sankofa and all- after we retrieve what we left behind, we can proceed along.

    Comment by Archangel — 5 September 2007 @ 9:37 AM

  2. I was kind of surprised to see Ran take that tack, as it rather misses the point. We’re not talking about energy that the sun can replenish, we’re talking about the nutritional energy in the soil that agriculture takes out. Things like night soil can slow down an unsustainable practice, but they can never make an unsustainable practice sustainable. Sunlight doesn’t put minerals in the soil, does it?

    So you’re left with cultivation that works with succession to build up stronger ecologies. But those all depend on building up ecological relationship (edge is a perfect example), which can be extraordinarily productive, but relationships fundamentally do not scale. That means that whatever you come up with, the one thing it won’t be is anything we would recognize as a city.

    In the Fifth World, we’re trying to envision some of the possibilities for the future, and it really runs the gamut. There’s no end to what’s possible. But that doesn’t mean that everything’s possible. Cities are unsustainable, basically by definition. Villages can be incredible things, arranged any number of ways, but the level of human population density you see even in an ancient city is simply not sustainable in the long term. Look at cliff-side villages in the southwest U.S., or Paleolithic fairs, and you’ll start to have an inkling of the mind-boggling diversity ahead of us. If anything, I think the hang-up on preserving cities is symptomatic of a distinct lack of imagination.

    Now, Ran’s latest response does get it right:

    But we do have to obey carrying capacity: The amount of life an area can support is limited by the sunlight that falls on it and the plants that absorb that sunlight (which we can increase through permaculture). Now, given a 50 mile radius circle, containing a number of humans it can support without losing fertility, there’s no reason they have to be evenly spread out. Many of them can be densely concentrated in a permanent settlement at the center.

    That’s the very crux of the problem, because there are other concerns to take into account: how much energy does it take to transport the food to the center, for instance, and when does it no longer become viable (where the energy to transport the food becomes greater than the energy value of the food itself). That’s precisely what creates a “foodshed.” In order to produce a city, you need the nutritional density to feed it: not just a question of your absolute production, but also how far away it’s being produced. With sustainable methods, you get the nutrititional density needed for a village, but not for a city. So while we can concentrate our populations differently than our food sources (as villages, and even hunter-gatherer camps, do), there’s a limit to that, as well.

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 5 September 2007 @ 9:48 AM

  3. Great post. Great e-prime. Great… Scott?

    Comment by Urban Scout — 5 September 2007 @ 10:04 AM

  4. Heh, thanks!

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 5 September 2007 @ 10:10 AM

  5. I was listening to a recording of a Derrick Jensen talk the other day and he repeated this definition of a city. I had already read it in Endgame and pretty much accepted it but I suddenly realised that it’s not as sharp as it could be.

    Clearly, almost any human settlement requires the routine importation of food. The Tolowa indians cited may have feasted on local salmon but they had to walk out of the village to get it. A reasonably sized town is also reliant on importation of food from the surrounding environment, but seems different from a city in both function and form. So is the transition to a city merely a quantitative, rather than a qualitative shift? We could go back to defining a city on the basis of size, or complexity of activity found within, or link it to a certain time in the cultural phase when political complexity results in the shift to greater centralisation of bureaucratic and mercantile functions.

    It would be useful to retain the conceptual link to the landbase, though, and I think the key is this: A city requires the routine importation of food _by other people_. A town can still support a majority of people who work in surrounding fields and orchards (or gardens and forests!), or can be seen as a centre primarily serving the local rural population and hence an extension of their settlements, but a city is something turned in upon itself (often defining its boundaries in an overt manner with the city wall), where the people rely on a flow of resources from outside.

    This may sound like a minor distinction, but i think it’s important, because it highlights the political difference - a small town may subsist through offering genuinely useful goods and services to the external communities, but a city can only operate through the _enforced_ subjugation of those communities, and is, hence, exclusively found where the classic hierarchy of a dominator culture is operative. Whether through violence or religious hypnosis (or, more usually, both), the local custodians of the landbase are forced into producing surplus resources and delivering them to the city.

    A city can thus also be defined by its growth. Since the urban population is no longer constrained by offering ‘value’ back to those external to it, it can command greater and greater flows of resources be diverted to it, depleting the natural stores and generally being unsustainable in all the ways we know so well. The population can grow in direct proportion to the size of the surrounding area under military control and not be subject (at least, not yet…) to the consequences of this depletion.

    So when Ran suggests cities might continue to exist, and you suggest that their function could be taken over by festivals, the issue seems to turn on what services cities can offer people in a primitivist / post-civilisation context. For most of history the answer has, obviously, been “not much” (and I hesitated even to claim that towns can offer value-for-landbase to surrounding communities, although there’s a reasonable argument to be made there), but I think that the areas where this current civilisation stands out from previous ones - globalised knowledge and scientific understanding - might make a compact settlement of some kind viable, offering, e.g., a storehouse of advanced knowledge of plant chemistry, holistic medicine, ancient history, etc. beyond that which can be sustained in oral form in a tribal situation. The examples we have of city-like settlements supported by non-civilised communities seem to be mostly ceremonial centres, only fully populated during the festival season, and I can imagine some kind of monastic institution preserving certain kinds of knowledge and wisdom in return for voluntary support from the surrounding landbase.

    So there you have it, a city manned by a skeleton staff of monks which also forms the centre for a bi-annual festive gathering -of-the-tribes. Behold as I split the difference between Jason and Ran! Or something.

    Comment by cheeba — 5 September 2007 @ 10:13 AM

  6. I think you may be overthinking this a bit, with a bit too strict a definition of “import.” No, the food’s rarely right inside the village. There’s a garden, and the garden could even be a mile away. But it’s still, in a less formal sense, part of the village. Do you “import” food from one room to another in your house? The word “import” implies a lot more than just straightforward transport. American Heritage Dictionary gives us, “To bring or carry in from an outside source, especially to bring in (goods or materials) from a foreign country for trade or sale.” OK, so we know that “country” is a useless and arbitrary concept, but there does seem to be something real here. What about bioregion? Or simply, territory?

    Sustainable cultures have a bond with their land, the territory that gives them birth. And, hunter-gatherer or permaculturalist, the food for any sustainable culture comes from that territory.

    City folk don’t live in wheat fields. They may never even see one. Their food is not coming from their territory in any meaningful way. There is a clear divide between the city and the hinterland that does not exist with, say, a horticultural village.

    Though, it’s funny you mention the special case of the ceremonial city. We’ve been working on a few spin-offs of the city idea, including that one, for the Fifth World. Chavin and Cahokia right now, being the primary models.

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 5 September 2007 @ 11:15 AM

  7. Nice post, Jason (it’s been a while since I’ve replied to your writing, but I have been reading it). Importation of food seems to be the common character defining a city, and diminishing returns is the limit, as you say.

    Sunlight doesn’t put minerals in the soil, does it?

    There are so few minerals in crops, compared to carbon and nitrogen, that minerals are pretty easily replaced through bedrock weathering, minerals in rain, and a teeny bit of rockdust. If carbon is replaced (and photosynthesis does that nicely), and nitrogen is carefully husbanded via nightsoil (we excrete far more N than we use) and N-fixing plants, you can keep cropland in good shape.

    I’d like to believe it’s possible for a modest urban center to have a beneficial relationship with both the surrounding humans and ecosystem, rather than the exploitive, destructive ones we have. A garden city, say, where each home is surrounded by some significant fraction (half?) of the 4000 sq ft of garden that John Jeavons says is necessary to produce food and compost crops per person. Ecologically functional food forests surrounding that, and wilderness corridors penetrating and surrounding those. But there’s clearly a limit to how big that urban center can be.

    Christian Peters looked at some cities in NY, asking how many acres were needed to feed the their population if all calories, for simplicity’s sake, came from corn. They calculated that Rochester NY (pop. 210,000) could get their food from within a 17 km radius, Canandaigua (15,000) from within 2.1 km radius. Of course they’re ignoring all the land needed for manure, ores, smelting, etc, so the footprint is going to be vastly bigger using industrial farming. But if permacultural methods could be applied, I bet the foodshed wouldn’t be much more than double or triple those areas. So a city of 15,000 might need a 5 km radius foodshed, which is easily reached in an hour’s walk. Bigger than that and preserving ecosystem function gets dicey, I suspect, unless you’ve really got food forestry down pat. But now we’ve got some numbers for how big population centers can get before they become parasitic. History suggests that 100,000 is above the upper limit. Renaissance Florence was 50,000, so you can have a pretty rich culture with 50,000.

    I suspect what we’ll see after the oil descent is a continual pulsing of villages growing into cities, reaching their limits, and sliding back down to village scale again. Unless we develop taboos that hold village size within their carrying capacity.

    Comment by Toby Hemenway — 5 September 2007 @ 12:50 PM

  8. Hey jason,

    I certainly am overthinking it! But that’s because I have the mother of all agendas that I’m trying not to bring into the discussion unnecessarily. As usual, I’m trying to make the case for re-emphasising the cultural and political aspects and the way in which they inflect the purely environmental considerations. (I’m also trying to avoid just talking about semantics, but I don’t know how succesfully :-)

    So I guess in suggesting that there is actually a spectrum of importation - from walking outside the village to the garden to denuding the wheatfields of Egypt - I’m arguing that a clear definition must therefore fall within the zone of the political (specifically, in the issue of coercion). After all, even horticultural villages might send people off on week-long hunting trips to supplement the local sources of food (or even trade with other villages?), whilst cities also have gardens and orchards of their own (18th-C London totally had wheat fields! You could walk there in half an hour).
    A small town with a few useful specialist artisans could be 80% self-sufficient and trade goods and services for the remaining 20% of food in a sustainable manner.

    So unless we pick an arbitrary percentage of importation, there is no definition of city here other than ‘an unsustainable concentration of people’, which brings us right back to Ran’s point - the city is being defined as that which is unsustainable. In reality we can recognise a city instantly and it has nothing to do with size or with any calculations of the carrying capacity of the local landbase. It has to do with a concentration of functions, a shift in the consciousness of the inhabitants, an acceleration of cultural change and innovation and, historically, is usually linked with a breakdown of feudality, the transformation of religion and the development of an early form of capitalistic exchange.

    So I agree with you that the nature of the city revolves around the ‘clear divide’ with the external region, but I think of the city wall as as much a means for an exploitative elite to store cultural and environmental wealth stolen from the surrounding bioregion as it is a means of protecting the city against marauding armies and/or a natural sense of connection to the landbase. Rather than tautologically defining cities as ‘that which is unsustainable’ i think it’s worth looking at the specific cultural etiology of the phenomenon, which is that cities occur at a certain point in cultural complexification, share certain common characteristics across cultures, and sustain their status (and hence existence) through a complex process of political coercion and cultural legitimisation.

    I don’t really disagree with anything you’ve said, I’m just swapping perspectives, really, but I’m interested in seeing whether you have any use for a more politicised understanding of the nuances of ‘importing’. Who is importing what? Are they doing it willingly? Quite aside from how big a settlement can get before it’s unsustainable, how does the ‘city’ phenomenon work, how are people convinced/coerced to send food there (pace premise 2 of ‘Endgame’) and how can we stop it happening again?

    [OK, now I’m really overthinking it. Why don’t I just post my dissertation on the internet and be done with it?…]

    Comment by cheeba — 5 September 2007 @ 1:54 PM

  9. Hey –

    Cheeba…. I tend to agree with Jason that you are over thinking this a little. Importation implies that the product is coming from others as opposed to simply being acquired by the natives at a distance. Remember, also, that trade does not necessarily count, in that it would be fully sustainable (potentially) for two villages to trade foodstuffs for variety, whereas it probably would not be if those same to villages traded food in one direction and only other products in return.

    Toby…. good to ’see’ you again. Hope life is treating you well….

    Like you I have been relatively non-participatory here for a while, but this question did peak my interest. A couple of the things you referenced in particular….

    First on adding garden space in an urban environment… it strikes me that even half of the necessary garden space per person exceeds the average living space of most urban households. So while it may not seem like much in some cases, within the context of city living it is a huge expenditure of space….

    Next, on the Christian Peters thing…. I don;t think, from the quick perusal I gave his report, that his research has much of anything to do, fundamentally, with what we are generally accustomed to talk about. Corn is a super high density food source AND (obviously) a monocrop. So how does that relate to sustainable practices, permaculture, etc? For every square kilometer he recommends, are we really talking about ten? twenty? more? Without looking at those variables specifically I don’t think we can really discuss how much outlying area a population density may need (And, of course, this is also totally lacking the local ecology and the variability therein………)

    Anyway, saw something that peaked my interest and couldn’t let it pass… Hope all is well with everyone!!!

    Janene

    Comment by janene — 5 September 2007 @ 4:06 PM

  10. Janene, good to hear from you, too.

    Corn is a super high density food source AND (obviously) a monoocrop. So how does that relate to sustainable practices, permaculture, etc?

    Jane Mt. Pleasant has some good data showing that corn/beans/squash yields more food, with better nutritional content, than monocrop corn. So I think we can use Peters’ numbers as a starting point and figure that we can get similar yields when using sustainable practices, or, at worst, half the yield or so. And then add in compost crops, etc. Peters at least has asked, “how much land will feed a city?” even though the assumpions are not too useful in the real world. If someone knows of better data, please chime in.

    And yes, to grow a significant portion of your own food takes more land than an average urban lot. I’m figuring cities will be pretty depopulated at some point. Then whoever lives in my house can garden half my block. I also eagerly await the day that at least every other city street is removed (and used to build village walls?) and turned into a food forest, since there won’t be cars any more. That’s a lot of land.

    Comment by Toby Hemenway — 5 September 2007 @ 5:24 PM

  11. Hey Toby –

    Fair enough. Three sisters certainly does change things a bit, although I have some question about the ecological stability of the guild (because it is so small/limited) particularly over varied bioregions. But it does provide a better starting point at the least….

    Oh… as to the urban thing… I’m not even thinking of lots at this point…. I’m thinking of apartment complexes, sky scrapers and so forth. Figure a typical family of four living in a 1000 sq foot apartment, one of thirty on a plot of land that is what, a couple acres in size? That’s a lot of depopulation. And then we come to the question…. does that even describe a ‘city’ anymore? (Bringing us back to the main theme :-) )

    Ah well….

    Janene

    Comment by janene — 5 September 2007 @ 5:43 PM

  12. “Permaculture also proves difficult to mass-produce or ship very far.”

    This is just asserted. Not argued. And it’s the entire frikkin’ issue.

    “To export food to cities requires the raw, absolute production that only agriculture can provide.”

    To export food to cities as we know them…

    To make things extraordinarily blunt for an example, say we have 1000 ‘gardens’ spread out over a large region, integrated with the larger ecosystem. Each garden could feed a village of 400, but could still be up kept by just 100. The villages federate/contract individually/whathaveyou and ship the direct raw material of their horticultural harvests to their comrades in a city. Just because they’re not uniformly stacked crates of a single product doesn’t invalidate their functionality or make them less efficient. Consider a care package sent by grandma, with 15 strawberries, three pumpkins and a bag of legumes, sent directly to its recipient… Think of the villages as each “sponsoring” their friends in the city.

    The villages could all be upstream on some watershed and the city at the coast. The villages raft resources constantly down the rivers as they are generated, while the city ships back items that are more efficiently created in Mass Society (Wi-Fi routers, solar panels, shower plumbing, highly non-linear social art) in clumps, so as to minimize energy consumption.

    (Positioning cities at the bottom of watersheds also has a bunch of other positive effects on the sustainability and long-term economic security of a city. Fishing, for instance, although it is certainly limited, is far more scalable that horticulture.)

    “Exporting waste to match food intake cannot make a city sustainable, due to the law of conservation of energy…. So with each iteration of the cycle, less energy comes back to the “farm” than originally left, so the system still exports the ecological health of the land to keep the city alive.”

    This is a deranged invocation of “conservation of energy” because the exact same amount of gross energy leaves the soil irregardless of whether you have 20,000 people living evenly spread out through the countryside or 5,000 in the countryside and 15,000 in a city that exports its waste back to the countryside.

    You could argue that energy would be lost in the shipping of that waste, and then you’d be right. But such energy lost needn’t come from biochemically stored energy within the ecosystem (instead transportation could directly tap solar, wind, whatever).

    Comment by Anonymous — 5 September 2007 @ 9:14 PM

  13. Jason

    Did you mean to conjoin David Holmgren and Bill Mollison and create a David Mollison? I can see in the future how the originator’s of permaculture could get mixed into a single mythical figure but I think we should probably wait until they’re dead before we start :-)

    Ananonymous, I’m really interested in what you’re discussing because regardless of the rest of the debate we’re a city based culture and a lot of people are going to gravitate toward large settlements in the mid to near future. I think we need to know how we are going to make it work and I’m glad to see you’re thinking about it.

    Comment by Aaron — 5 September 2007 @ 9:33 PM

  14. Hi, Toby! Great to see you around!

    There are so few minerals in crops, compared to carbon and nitrogen, that minerals are pretty easily replaced through bedrock weathering, minerals in rain, and a teeny bit of rockdust. If carbon is replaced (and photosynthesis does that nicely), and nitrogen is carefully husbanded via nightsoil (we excrete far more N than we use) and N-fixing plants, you can keep cropland in good shape.

    But do you think those techniques could make tilling sustainable?

    I’d like to believe it’s possible for a modest urban center to have a beneficial relationship with both the surrounding humans and ecosystem, rather than the exploitive, destructive ones we have. A garden city, say, where each home is surrounded by some significant fraction (half?) of the 4000 sq ft of garden that John Jeavons says is necessary to produce food and compost crops per person. Ecologically functional food forests surrounding that, and wilderness corridors penetrating and surrounding those. But there’s clearly a limit to how big that urban center can be.

    There’s the key. What’s that limit? It really seems like it’s something closer to the village level, which really makes it not a city anymore.

    History suggests that 100,000 is above the upper limit. Renaissance Florence was 50,000, so you can have a pretty rich culture with 50,000.

    I think we have plenty of ethnographic examples that the case city-dwellers make that cultural richness is a function of urban centers is bunk. We have rich cultures from horticultural villages and hunter-gatherer bands, too. The idea that you need cities to have a rich culture is one of those “just-so” stories that cities tell to justify their existence, and, I think, is really the kind of condescension that fuels the rural-urban antagonism.

    I suspect what we’ll see after the oil descent is a continual pulsing of villages growing into cities, reaching their limits, and sliding back down to village scale again. Unless we develop taboos that hold village size within their carrying capacity.

    I think that’s true; I’d guess that that kind of pulsing would eventually develop not just taboos, but specific ecological limits that would limit village size to a sustainable scale.

    I’m arguing that a clear definition must therefore fall within the zone of the political (specifically, in the issue of coercion).

    But cities only rarely resort to coercion. There’s just not enough energy to make a habit of that. Most of the time, it’s concensual trade.

    So unless we pick an arbitrary percentage of importation, there is no definition of city here other than ‘an unsustainable concentration of people’, which brings us right back to Ran’s point - the city is being defined as that which is unsustainable.

    But it’s a pattern we’re surrounded by. If it’s unsustainable by definition, that’s not a mark against it. Don’t you think we need a word to describe this phenomenon?

    In reality we can recognise a city instantly and it has nothing to do with size or with any calculations of the carrying capacity of the local landbase. It has to do with a concentration of functions, a shift in the consciousness of the inhabitants, an acceleration of cultural change and innovation and, historically, is usually linked with a breakdown of feudality, the transformation of religion and the development of an early form of capitalistic exchange.

    Most cities throughout history have had none of those things. We can instantly recognize a city, but it has everything to do with size and carrying capacity. The ideological impacts of that have varied from culture to culture, so defining it in terms of the ideological consequences of that pattern of living seems backwards, especially since there’s so much variation in those ideological consequences that to define the city in those terms would leave us with a word so useless that everything would be a city.

    Rather than tautologically defining cities as ‘that which is unsustainable’

    That’s not a tautology. “A city is a city,” would be tautological. But the fact that a city is unsustainable by definition is not tautological; it is the direct consequence of a particular ecological phenomenon. We’re surrounded by this phenomenon. It needs a name. That this phenomenon is inherently unsustainable does not change that. You could as easily that defining overshoot as unsustainable is tautological. It isn’t, either; it’s an ecological phenomenon that’s fundamentally unsustainably, but it happens so often that it needs a name.

    I don’t really disagree with anything you’ve said, I’m just swapping perspectives, really, but I’m interested in seeing whether you have any use for a more politicised understanding of the nuances of ‘importing’. Who is importing what? Are they doing it willingly? Quite aside from how big a settlement can get before it’s unsustainable, how does the ‘city’ phenomenon work, how are people convinced/coerced to send food there (pace premise 2 of ‘Endgame’) and how can we stop it happening again?

    Those are worthy of analysis, but I don’t think they can help you define a city. As I said before, most cities exist from consensual trade, which would make them indistinguishable from horticultural villages or hunter-gatherer bands, yet we can clearly see that they are still very different. Ultimately, consensual trade or violent conquest makes very little difference; the energy flow remains the same.

    And yes, to grow a significant portion of your own food takes more land than an average urban lot. I’m figuring cities will be pretty depopulated at some point. Then whoever lives in my house can garden half my block. I also eagerly await the day that at least every other city street is removed (and used to build village walls?) and turned into a food forest, since there won’t be cars any more. That’s a lot of land.

    Do you think a situation like that would still be recognizable as a city?

    This is just asserted. Not argued. And it’s the entire frikkin’ issue.

    That is true. I’ve gone through this so many times now, I’ve forgotten to crunch all the numbers. Fair enough, especially now that Ran’s expanded this to essay-length, this obviously deserves a more in-depth response. So a more in-depth response shall you have!

    Later. :)

    To export food to cities as we know them…

    Or to any settlement that would have the population density necessary to make it recognizable as a city. Granted, if you change the nature of the city so drastically that no one would any longer recognize it as a city, then that may change, but at that point, are you talking about a different kind of city, or just plain something that isn’t a city anymore?

    Each garden could feed a village of 400, but could still be up kept by just 100.

    Not sure your premise is actually plausible. What keeps the population from rising when the food is available? Why do they put in all the extra effort that they’re not going to use? And how big would that garden have to be?

    The villages federate/contract individually/whathaveyou and ship the direct raw material of their horticultural harvests to their comrades in a city.

    More problems. To make this sustainable, it’s got to be spread out. Quite a bit. How do you account for the energy needed to travel that far? And how does the city pay back not only for the food, but for the energy involved in transport?

    Consider a care package sent by grandma, with 15 strawberries, three pumpkins and a bag of legumes, sent directly to its recipient… Think of the villages as each “sponsoring” their friends in the city.

    Yeah, that doesn’t really change much. Grandma can send a care package now because it doesn’t cost her much, just postage. What if she had to walk 200 miles to deliver those 15 strawberries, three pumpkins, and a bag of legumes? Because it seems like that’s what we’re talking about here. So basically, the city would need the hinterland to feed it.

    How does this differ from the current situation? All the cause of our current unsustainability are still there.

    The villages could all be upstream on some watershed and the city at the coast. The villages raft resources constantly down the rivers as they are generated, while the city ships back items that are more efficiently created in Mass Society (Wi-Fi routers, solar panels, shower plumbing, highly non-linear social art) in clumps, so as to minimize energy consumption.

    Now we’re getting somewhere, but even rafting downstream takes time and energy, to say nothing of getting back home, upstream. And you’re still perpetuating the urban myth that only cities can provide high culture. Wi-fi routers, solar panels, shower plumbing and “highly non-linear social art” lose a lot of their appeal when you live in a horticultural village.

    This is a deranged invocation of “conservation of energy” because the exact same amount of gross energy leaves the soil irregardless of whether you have 20,000 people living evenly spread out through the countryside or 5,000 in the countryside and 15,000 in a city that exports its waste back to the countryside.

    That’s true, and the point stands: if you’re doing something unsustainable to the soil, “night soil” isn’t going to make it better.

    Did you mean to conjoin David Holmgren and Bill Mollison and create a David Mollison?

    YES!

    David Mollison

    DAVID MOLLISON!!!

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 6 September 2007 @ 9:29 AM

  15. It seems that everyone is talking at cross purposes and I think I know why.

    When we hear the word city we (mostly) don’t think of unsustainable concentrations of people, or people that require imports. We consider a city as composed of three things:
    1. Government
    2. Infrastructure and services
    3. Dense Population

    Foremost, a city is a compact area with a government that provides infrastructure and services for a dense population. (Note, I recognize at least two problems with that definition in the words “compact” and “dense”, bear with me)

    So, Jason (and others) come up with a definition of city like “requires imports” and those, like Ran, who like cities cry foul. If the technophiliacs or post-modern druids come up with a scenario for maintaining a dense population then Jason either says “won’t work” or “not a city”. To me, without a huge stake in the argument, “won’t work” with explanation is a fine answer, but “not a city” isn’t unless the above general definition of city is obviously not met.

    The reason “not a city” doesn’t work for me (us?) is that since the scenario is attacking the definition of city that response seems to begging the question. As in:
    A: Imagine a sustainable lifestyle like…

    B: That’s not a city.

    A: Why isn’t it.

    B: Cities aren’t sustainable, so that can’t be a city.

    A: But it’s got people living in a compact area, with a dense population, with a government providing infrastructure.

    B: Doesn’t matter, if it’s sustainable it’s not a city.

    I would much rather read either, why the scenario is unsustainable, or in what way it would fail as a generally understood city. For example, in the given example of a collection of riverside farms growing food and shipping it down the river to the city my objections were (in no particular order)

    1. 400 people is going to be a huge garden. (A square mile is 640 acres, so that would be about 1.5 acres per person, and assuming a 5 foot swath would require walking 1056 miles to harvest Assuming you could harvest it all on one pass.)

    2. Why would the food growers bother?

    3. What are the city people going to do to make themselves feel secure when all of their sustenance is being imported on the river?

    4. What happens to the city when the river floods or dries?

    5. What if there is a bad weather year for the crops?

    A response based on those objections would be much more fruitful for the discussion.

    On the other hand, you probably don’t want to get too bogged down responding to ridiculous scenarios. So what’s a poor man to do.

    JimFive

    Comment by JimFive — 6 September 2007 @ 10:57 AM

  16. I dunno, I really think it’s an issue of needing an old-fashioned illustration. I’m going to start with Toby’s numbers (btw, Hey Toby!) ’cause they strike me as reasonable numbers.

    So to state it clearly: we’re looking at a city of 15,000 people producing food, medicine & all other material needs in a 5km radius (about 8 mile radius). So, let’s look at a city like, oh, I don’t know, how about Columbus, OH? Columbus, OH has 700,000+ people and occupies an area of about 212 sq miles. How do these two cities match up? Well, the area of our hypothetical city in square miles is pi * r^2, or about 202 sq miles.

    Take a moment to think about that.

    The industrial city has 700,000+ people and occupies only slightly more area than our proposed post-industrial, permacultural city of 15,000.

    We may well have cities in the near (maybe even long-term) future, but, they aren’t going to be anything like “the city” that most of us carry around in our heads.

    Comment by jhereg — 6 September 2007 @ 11:38 AM

  17. D’oh! damn it!

    Got my conversions all wrong…. bloody metrics…

    Please disregard the entirety of the above post.

    Comment by jhereg — 6 September 2007 @ 11:47 AM

  18. Okay, 2nd attempt: 5km ~ 3mi, so we’re talking about a population of 15,000 occupying an area of about 30 square miles. To translate this to Columbus, OH it would take about 7 of these cities to occupy the same area, equating to about 100,000 people (as opposed to the 700,000 people currently occupying it).

    The actual density would probably be a little lower tho, just to maximize “edge”.

    Comment by jhereg — 6 September 2007 @ 11:59 AM

  19. Jim, you’re completely misrepresenting the argument. Like any other social structure, a city represents a specific kind of ecological arrangement: in this case, a special case of overshoot. That is what has always defined a city, as we’ve already seen above. The various “civic” functions attached to it do not require a city (as seen by Paleolithic fairs), and are not always present in cities (the post-Roman British theory of “life in cities, but not city life”), so they obviously do not define a city in any way, they merely correlate with cities (and that, only loosely). What a city always has is a unique ecological relationship: a population dense enough to require the regular importation of resources.

    A: Imagine a big, vegetarian cat like…

    B: That’s not a lion.

    A: Why isn’t it?

    B: Lions are carnivores, so that can’t be a lion.

    A: But it’s got a big mane, and a tail, and big teeth.

    B: Doesn’t matter, if it’s a vegetarian it’s not a lion.

    Big manes, tails and big teeth do not define lions. Lots of things have big manes, and tails, and big teeth, that are clearly not lions. A lion is a specific species. The fact that carnivorism comes along with that definition doesn’t change that, so if you’re talking about a big, vegetarian cat, you may be talking about something possible, but you’re first and foremost not talking about a lion. If a city doesn’t require the importation of resources, then it has a different relationship to its ecology. It is something different. That unsustainability goes along with that doesn’t change anything. So you can have dense population centers, but if they’re able to feed themselves, they’re not cities. Not because they’re sustainable, but becasue you’re talking about something very, very different, something no one would intuitively recognize as a city.

    A response based on those objections would be much more fruitful for the discussion.

    But that is the response I gave. I asked those very questions above.

    On the other hand, you probably don’t want to get too bogged down responding to ridiculous scenarios. So what’s a poor man to do.

    I think a few examples are precisely what we need. Anonymous gave us a good start. Since I asked the exact same questions you did, I think we can agree that there’s some holes that make that scenario look either unrealistic, or exactly the same as the unsustainable cities we have already. My guess is that with enough examples, we’ll see a pattern emerging: (1) schemes that are really variations on the idea of a village, and (2) schemes that aren’t actually sustainable.

    Okay, 2nd attempt: 5km ~ 3mi, so we’re talking about a population of 15,000 occupying an area of about 30 square miles. To translate this to Columbus, OH it would take about 7 of these cities to occupy the same area, equating to about 100,000 people (as opposed to the 700,000 people currently occupying it).

    So 1/7 the density there is now? And you’re still talking about much less population density there than even pre-industrial cities. Is it still fair to call something a “city,” when no one would recognize it as such?

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 6 September 2007 @ 2:02 PM

  20. Jason,
    I think you just made my point. Can you imagine a lion that has never eaten meat? I can, (in a zoo, fed the equivalent of manufactured cat food) and it would still be a lion. The definition of a lion is a cat that looks like (pic) that lives in place. While lions may be carnivores it is not an inherent part of the definition of lion.

    JimFive

    Comment by JimFive — 6 September 2007 @ 4:00 PM

  21. Y’know, I thought of that as I wrote it, but that doesn’t prove your point, it just means it’s a bad example.

    But to take just one more swing at it, just because you feed a lion vegetables doesn’t make him a vegetarian. He’s still not suited for it. He’s still got the sharp teeth and shorter digestive tract of a carnivore. Regardless of what you feed him, a lion is always a carnivore, because carnivorism is an inherent part of the definition of a lion: Panthera leo is a member of the Order Carnivora.

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 7 September 2007 @ 9:30 AM

  22. Do you think a situation like that would still be recognizable as a city?

    No. It would look like . . .SUBURBIA!

    Seriously, Holmgren (that would be Bill Holmgren in your mythology–and I love the superhero graphic!) has written a couple of articles about retrofitting the suburbs (still in a very mainstream way–cottage industries, farmers markets, etc., so we’re only going partway down the energy descent here) and I’ve often looked at those big suburban yards with food forests in mind.

    Here’s a related thought prompted by your regular references to foragers and intact ecosystems. Right now we’re using oil to supplant work that used to be done by ecosystems: cleaning water, waste recycling, food production, etc. You can shit in the woods and it will turn quickly to fertilizer. The ecosystem takes care of it. Shit in your back yard, even your groovy permaculture yard, and it’s a health hazard. The ecosystem services are missing, and the human presence is too frequent.
    I think the same is will apply to much of the ecological repair work currently done by oil.

    Post-oil, we may have food forests and Zone 1 gardens, but I think there will still be a lot of abatement of the human impact of permacultural villages that can only be done by large surrounding areas of intact ecosystem (though they may be as altered by humans as the Amazon and Eastern US were, pre-Columbus). A village is still a pretty dense settlement. Eventually, I imagine there would be nitrogen-rich runoff, soil biota imbalances, smoky air, etc. These things could be best mitigated by a large surrounding “wilderness” (I use the term advisedly). And impact on the village itself would be reduced by foraging in that wilderness. For this and a fwe other reasons, I see a lively and beneficial connection between forager and horticultural people, and they would probably even be the same people.

    Comment by Toby Hemenway — 7 September 2007 @ 11:56 PM

  23. I read Holmgren’s articles about retrofitting suburbia a while back, and it struck me that what he was outlining was really a transition plan from suburbia to a village.

    I’m very much on the same page with regards to not-for-humans land. :) As I’ve said before, there’s a spectrum from foragers to horticulture, and I think what you’re suggesting here is exactly right. People are going to be compelled to leave large areas with little use for a fairly long time, simply to allow for enough area to make viable, intact ecosystems that can begin cleaning out some of our worse impacts. When they try to do otherwise, they’ll just end up getting sick, and once you get some foragers really entrenched, there could be an even more immediate feedback to keep that kind of encroachment from happening: like threatening arrows landing at your feet, shot from the shadows by marksmen you can’t see. :)

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 8 September 2007 @ 12:14 AM

  24. Hey –

    hmmm…. well, assuming Jason’s projection of collapse (which y’all know I question, but cannot prove either way, so let it stand as premise for now :-) )… I expect the suburbs to be as denuded by the crash as the urban environment. However, just as foragers may find a useful ecology in the burned out remnants of the cities (a la Fight Club), I can also see where horticulturalists may find suburban environments useful.

    Imagine… a relatively new, wealthy, suburban neighborhood, with its 100 homes on 1/4 acre lots, with the large park on one end that is currently grass with a few trees and a playground………… that could be a very attractive setting for a new village trying to establish itself both physically and culturally. The gradual change from ‘neighborhood’ to ‘community’ paralleling the gradual change from ’suburbia’ to ‘village.’

    Good stuff there :-)

    Janene

    Comment by janene — 8 September 2007 @ 9:54 AM

  25. Excellent post! I have thought about this for a long time, but it’s the first time I’ve seen the entire idea fully articulated.

    I would also like to add that in our case we have a limiting factor which our cities are founded on that can and probably will cause them to collapse before the countryside is absolutely pillaged to desertification. That factor is oil. The oil allows for bigger cities because of it’s importance in the infrastructure. When it gets scarce food will become inreasingly expensive and people will start dying off, triggering a total collapse of the city.

    Comment by Torjus Gaaren — 8 September 2007 @ 12:49 PM

  26. There are very good arguments on both sides of the issue here. My personal belief is that cities are fundamentally not sustainable. The second law of thermodynamics seems to apply in this regard more than the law of conservation of energy. Humans don’t seem to want to work harder than is necessary for survival, as it is with all other species on this planet. Transportation of nutrition goes against this principle, as it is easier to take from the natural surroundings than to labor.

    Cities have their purpose as meeting places of trade. I have a farmers market/ flea market just 5 minutes drive from the house. A farmers market is not a sustainable situation, but it does give people a chance to come together for mutual benefit. A city is really a prolonged farmers market with no beginning or end, that has been in session far too long.Why not define a city as an area that has too high a population density (exceedes carrying capacity)? The problem with defining a city, and civilization in general, is that these are not static structures. They rise and fall just as all other human institutions do.

    It seems as if one of the fundamental questions we have to ask ourselves is if we are ready for partial domestication of animals. At the risk of sounding too Human-centric, I do believe that if I take care of the area that has somehow become mine to look after, I deserve to harvest what was sown, always keeping in mind that my grand children will need to eat as well.

    What is the real nature of our natural contract as opposed to our social contract?

    Comment by Jason G — 8 September 2007 @ 10:37 PM

  27. You can shit in the woods and it will turn quickly to fertilizer. The ecosystem takes care of it. Shit in your back yard, even your groovy permaculture yard, and it’s a health hazard. The ecosystem services are missing, and the human presence is too frequent.

    I desperately hope people pick up on humanure in a hurry (and, of course, correctly).

    It’s interesting to note that Detroit is way ahead of us (http://earth-works.org/) and looks to already be well on the road to turning into horticultural villages.

    But that’s only possible due to Detroit’s hollowing out phase over the last decade or so. I suspect that the cities currently doing well will probably end up in the worst situations.

    Comment by jhereg — 9 September 2007 @ 3:08 PM

  28. Fascinating debate - one of the most interesting I’ve seen for a while. I’ll be back to contribute more very soon…

    Comment by strange but true — 10 September 2007 @ 10:45 AM

  29. OK, but the city, as a special case of overshoot, is the specific definition you’re giving to a city in this argument. I don’t think the average person defines a city that way. A few other ways of defining a city are given here by other posters. The argument: if a settlement meets all these criteria, and is sustainable, then it refutes the “cities are unsustainable” argument. It falls flat because, in the context of this argument, you define a city as a special case of overshoot. The two camps don’t have the same meaning for the word city.

    Jason, Derrick Jensen, et all, you are trying to put forward a new definition of what a city is. Within the context of your own argument, it holds true. But in order for it to work, we have to accept that city Means that type of overshoot. I don’t.

    I think a city is a mythological artifact, not a specific type of settlement. Practically any small town today would be a city by archeological standards. I say: The largest permanent settlement in a given area is likely to be called a city by the people in that area. I think it’s not a condition, but a title. A man is a duke because everyone calls him a duke and acts like it is true. It changes nothing about the characteristics of a man, except in how others treat him. However much we don’t want to argue semantics, that is what this argument is. I don’t think you are even trying to prove that cities are unsustainable. I think you are taking that as your starting point and exploring what that means.

    Comment by Andrew Jensen — 10 September 2007 @ 12:24 PM

  30. Nice post. My flippant response to the definition of civilization based around the importation of goods is something like “My body is a collection of cells living in densities high enough to require the routine importation of food and other necessities of life (and therefore is evil and must be destroyed).”

    I think Ran is dead on when he says,”A more careful and empowering argument would go like this: 1) Anything that systematically takes more than it gives will exhaust its resource base and collapse. 2) Cities as we know them take more than they give. 3) Therefore, if we want to live in cities, we must reinvent them.”

    Cities (or any form of human settlements) aren’t against the laws of the universe, they’re i>subject to them.

    Comment by Paul — 13 September 2007 @ 2:45 AM

  31. The problem with defining a city, and civilization in general, is that these are not static structures. They rise and fall just as all other human institutions do.

    Even dynamic structures have definitions. A Lotka-Volterra cycle is nothing if not dynamic, and yet it has a very precise definition; mathematical, even. Cities and civilizations have definitions, and those definitions are important. Conflating ideas leads to incredible confusion, making it impossible to see the implications of a behavior, not because the behavior doesn’t necessarily have those implications, but because you’ve conflated several different behaviors by caliing them all by the same name.

    Imagine if I argued that there’s really no difference between lions and panda bears, and you see a lion running towards you. You’re about to conclude that the lion will eat you, but I remark, “That’s not necessarily true; some lions only eat bamboo.” Has removing that distinction helped anything, or has it simply introduced confusion? I’ve made it impossible to truly understand lions or panda bears, because I’ve made it impossible to distinguish between them. That’s the importance of a definition. Without a clear definition, you wind up with clouded, circular thought. To quote the Centauri minister from Babylon 5, “If you cannot say what you mean, then you cannot possibly mean what you say.”

    At the risk of sounding too Human-centric, I do believe that if I take care of the area that has somehow become mine to look after, I deserve to harvest what was sown, always keeping in mind that my grand children will need to eat as well.

    Putting this in terms of “partial domestication” obfuscates more than it reveals. You’re talking about being part of a land, the same as any other animal. There’s no difference between what you’re suggesting here, and what a bear does.

    OK, but the city, as a special case of overshoot, is the specific definition you’re giving to a city in this argument. I don’t think the average person defines a city that way.

    We went through the way the average person defines a city in the article. We even went through several standard dictionary definitions. The popular understanding is the crucial starting point for really defining a word, but the popular understanding is usually vague at best; it intuits a real phenomenon going on, but rarely pins down the exact criteria of it. That’s the work of an article like this: start with the general idea, and begin to pin down the specific criteria. And that’s precisely the argument that this article lays out. As I wrote:

    Cities typically feature “city life”: the unique social network of bureaucrats, merchants, and a dense human population that arises in such urban centers, but defining a city in such terms seems tautological. No standard definition for “city” (versus other permanent settlements like a “village”) exists. From the American Heritage Dictionary, we get “A center of population, commerce, and culture; a town of significant size and importance.” Archaeologists define a city in terms of population density, with 5,000 or more people living in an at least semi-permanent settlement.

    Such definitions try to capture an intuitive understanding that ultimately comes down to an ecological relationship: they point to the city as a unique form of human population density, with a unique relationship to its landbase

    I should have also noted in the article that “city life” fails to define cities on both counts: there are cities with no “city life,” and “city life” with no cities. So that means that “city life” merely correlates with cities; it cannot possibly define it. You can’t even define one as a subset of the other, because it defies both directions. If you had only one or the other, you could argue that they’re subsets of one another, but with both, that means that the strongest relationship possible is just correlation.

    You can’t just dismiss the conclusion because you don’t like it or it doesn’t sit well with you. Tell me where one of my premeses are false, or where my logic goes wrong. If the premeses are all true, and the logic is correct, then the conclusion must follow. Arguing the conclusion is useless. What’s wrong with the argument?

    A few other ways of defining a city are given here by other posters.

    Where? I don’t see any. Cheeba offers:

    It has to do with a concentration of functions, a shift in the consciousness of the inhabitants, an acceleration of cultural change and innovation and, historically, is usually linked with a breakdown of feudality, the transformation of religion and the development of an early form of capitalistic exchange.

    That’s precisely what’s meant by “city life,” but as I’ve already argued, that can’t possibly define a city, because it occurs outside of cities, and not all cities have it. I haven’t seen any suggestion here that really differs that much from Cheeba’s in defining cities in terms of the presence of “city life.” It’s pandas and lions: do we reveal more, or obfuscate more, by referring to hypothetical future possibilities for what we now call “city life” in sustainable settings, though they would of necessity bear little to no resemblance to anything we call cities today, by that name? Cities represent a unique form of human ecological relationship. If we conflate that with future potentials that share little or even nothing in common with them, we simply make it impossible to understand them or cities. If these hypothetical structures are in fact possible, they will be something wholly new: why not call them something wholly new? Calling something new by the same name as something old doesn’t reveal anything, it obfuscates, and that kind of conflation robs us of our ability to think.

    The argument: if a settlement meets all these criteria, and is sustainable, then it refutes the “cities are unsustainable” argument. It falls flat because, in the context of this argument, you define a city as a special case of overshoot. The two camps don’t have the same meaning for the word city.

    If a geological epoch meets all these criteria, and it is marked by exceptional warmth, then it refutes the “ice ages are cold” argument. It falls flat because, in the context of this argument, you define an ice age as a geological epoch of particular cold. The two camps don’t have the same meaning for the word ice age.

    Do you see the problem with that argument? You are right, in a sense, that the two camps are not using the same meaning for the word city. My argument calls for careful use of language, because precision in language leads to precision in thought, which is the chief means of avoiding deep confusion. The other camp is conflating cities with many other types of human ecological relationships.

    Let’s put it this way: which meaning enables us to understand the patterns we see in the world around us better? Cities as the precise patterns we see around us, so we can understand how and why they are unsustainable, with a different word to denote future possibilities which share some things in common with cities, but are clearly not cities? Or does it help us better to understand the world around us to simply call them all “cities,” and thus that nothing of substance can really be said of cities in general, because they vary so much and so greatly that no matter how general a statement made, you’ll always have a counter-example? Does this really help you understand the world, or does it actively prohibit you from understanding the world by conflating two (or more) different things?

    Pandas & lions. You cannot understand what you cannot distinguish.

    Jason, Derrick Jensen, et all, you are trying to put forward a new definition of what a city is.

    This is absolutely NOT TRUE. We are putting in precise terms the definition of a city that every other definition grasps towards. It is NOT a new definition of what a city is: it is simply clarifying the vague meaning that we all alude to.

    It is, however, true that you, Ran and others are trying to put forward a new definition of what a city is, one that ignores its fundamental ecological relationship and attempts to broaden the concept of “city” to include horticultural villages, Paleolithic fairs, and other, as-yet-untried possibilities that no one without specific prompting would ever recognize as a city. That’s the real litmus test of a definition. Once you’ve achieved a degree of precision, can you then go back and find examples that meet your definition? And will the average person, unprompted, recognize those examples as the word you’ve defined? There’s not a city that’s ever existed that fits the definition I’ve used here, echoing Derrick Jensen, William Catton, Vere Gordon Childe and many others, that wouldn’t be immediately recognizable as such by any random English-speaker. The same cannot be said of the imprecise, wide-ranging definition of “city” being offered here as an alternative, which includes many examples which no one would ever recognize as a city.

    Within the context of your own argument, it holds true. But in order for it to work, we have to accept that city Means that type of overshoot. I don’t.

    Ultimately, all communication requires shared meaning. The definitions I’ve dealt with here are standard definitions of the word “city.” We started with a very common dictionary. It matches popular recognition of what the word means. All I’ve done is work out some of the precise criteria of the vague phenomenon that the popular meaning alludes to.

    But logic isn’t a smorgabord. You can’t just dismiss the conclusion because you don’t like it or it doesn’t sit well with you. Tell me where one of my premeses are false, or where my logic goes wrong. If the premeses are all true, and the logic is correct, then the conclusion must follow. Arguing the conclusion is useless. What’s wrong with the argument?

    I say: The largest permanent settlement in a given area is likely to be called a city by the people in that area. I think it’s not a condition, but a title.

    Civilized people call the largest settlement in an area a city, and it usually is, but neither hunter-gatherers nor horticulturalists use terms that really map to our concept of “cities.” Granted, there’s a bit of a linguistic issue there since translation becomes necessary to compare against cultures that ostensibly don’t have cities, but to refer back to popular meanings, I don’t think anyone would look at the largest !Kung encampment in a given area and call it a city; not even the !Kung themselves. Certainly when indigenous peoples learn English, they do not begin referring to their larger settlements as cities; they refer to big villages, large camps, perhaps even the chief’s village, but not cities.

    This makes some problems for your definition, I think. But more to the point, does this help us understand the patterns in the world around us, or hinder them? We already have a way of indicating the biggest settlement in an area: “the biggest settlement,” or even, “population center.” How do we refer to this pattern that we can clearly see in the world around us, this ecological phenomenon of humans living in concentrations so large as to require the importation of food? If not the obvious choice of “city,” which fits the etymological, historical, and popular uses of the word, then what? By conflating it with a completely different concept, we’re robbed of the capacity to say anything about it, or even think about it.

    I don’t think you are even trying to prove that cities are unsustainable. I think you are taking that as your starting point and exploring what that means.

    That’s certainly an important question, since we live in such a pattern here and now. Much more important than the semantic argument of whether some heretofore untried possibility should be called a “city,” alongside the much more clearly-defined possibilities we’ve already tried. But it seems to me we already have a clear word for this existing phenomenon. What we’re talking about here are hypotheticals: societies that share only some characteristics in common with the things we recognize as cities. I think we are all agreed here that to be sustainable, the city would have to change fundamentally. Ran readily admits that cities as we know them are not sustainable. So, if the first step to a sustainable city is making it unrecognizable as a city, what value is there in continuing to call it a “city,” instead of recognizing that it is something new by calling it something new? Such a thing would be very different from a city; even though it has some features in common, it will differ in other, fundamental respects that will make it behave very differently than a city. By the same token, there are features in common to both pandas and lions (mammary glands, hair, warm-bloodedness, live birth, quadrupedalism, eyes and teeth, and spinal cords protected by a backbone, to name just a few), but there are also many significant differences between pandas and lions (diet, habitat, mating patterns, social patterns, life expectancy and activity levels, again, to name just a few). That’s why we distinguish between them; we can still note their similarities, but if we conflated them, we would be unable to speak or even think about the things that seperate them. We’d be left with nothing but confusion; you can’t say that lions are carnivores or vegetarians, because you can find examples of either one, for example. Do lions live in solitude or in prides? If you cannot distinguish, you cannot think, so the first step towards understanding must always be knowing precisely what you’re saying.

    Nice post. My flippant response to the definition of civilization based around the importation of goods is something like “My body is a collection of cells living in densities high enough to require the routine importation of food and other necessities of life (and therefore is evil and must be destroyed).”

    Except that doesn’t hold. As we already discussed, “import” brings with it an acknowledgement of long distance and even crossing bioregional lines. Your body doesn’t require a salad from 1,500 miles away; it can do just fine on locally-grown greens.

    I think Ran is dead on when he says,”A more careful and empowering argument would go like this: 1) Anything that systematically takes more than it gives will exhaust its resource base and collapse. 2) Cities as we know them take more than they give. 3) Therefore, if we want to live in cities, we must reinvent them.”

    I think that argument glosses over an important point: if the first thing you need to do to make a city sustainable is to completely reinvent it, what good does it do to call this new thing that you’ve invented a “city”? That doesn’t deepen our understanding, it cuts it off.

    Cities (or any form of human settlements) aren’t against the laws of the universe, they’re i>subject to them.

    Precisely. And that’s why, if you can get a precise understanding of one type of settlement versus another, you can then proceed to understand how some of the consequences of living with the laws of the universe will ultimately play out. Cities aren’t being defined here as unsustainable; that’s the word we have to describe the ecological phenomenon we see around us. Its unsustainability is simply the consequence of the defining trends of that phenomenon in a world subject to the laws of physics, biology and ecology.

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 17 September 2007 @ 5:33 PM

  32. most frustrating part of the internet?

    anonymous asssholes w/ nothing to contribute.

    Comment by jhereg — 19 September 2007 @ 8:16 AM

  33. Jason,

    If a modern small city (say 20000 people) could be made sustainable by some as yet undiscovered means (Deus ex machine) that did not cause it to chage in any other way, I would still call it a city, you wouldn’t.

    That is the semantic argument in a nutshell.

    You are also glossing over the importation argument, again by semantically claiming that importation must be over long distances or across bioregions.

    Unsustainablitily may be a consequence of cities, or even a property of the cities that we know, but it is not a definition of cities.

    JimFive

    Comment by JimFive — 19 September 2007 @ 11:37 AM

  34. If a modern small city (say 20000 people) could be made sustainable by some as yet undiscovered means (Deus ex machine) that did not cause it to chage in any other way, I would still call it a city, you wouldn’t.

    Yes I would. It’s a settlement with a population large enough to require the regular importation of resources; if you come up with some magical means of providing those resources sustainably, that doesn’t change the fact that it’s still a settlement with a population large enough to require the regular importation of resources.

    The problem, of course, is that that only exists in fantasy.

    That is the semantic argument in a nutshell.

    But it’s not true.

    You are also glossing over the importation argument, again by semantically claiming that importation must be over long distances or across bioregions.

    That’s because the “importation argument” isn’t an argument at all. Long distance is what importing means. No one ever says that they’ve imported tomatoes to the kitchen from their backyard garden.

    Unsustainablitily may be a consequence of cities, or even a property of the cities that we know, but it is not a definition of cities.

    No, cities are defined by densities of population great enough to require the regular importation of resources. That creates a very unique pattern of ecological (and thus, economic) relationship. What else would you define any kind of settlement in terms of? They’re all matters of ecological relationships, and the nature of those patterns of relationships offer hte only really valid means of defining them.

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 19 September 2007 @ 4:35 PM

  35. Jason,
    Without meaning to be too harsh, do you purposely pick up on the unimportant detail to avoid the main point?

    To adjust my scenario:
    If a modern small city (say 20000 people) could be made [to not require importation] by some as yet undiscovered means (Deus ex machine) that did not cause it to change in any other way, I would still call it a city, you wouldn’t.

    JimFive

    Comment by JimFive — 20 September 2007 @ 8:32 AM

  36. That’s because the “importation argument” isn’t an argument at all. Long distance is what importing means. No one ever says that they’ve imported tomatoes to the kitchen from their backyard garden.

    No, importation means crossing an arbitrary (usually governmental) border. People regularly import cigarettes into Michigan across the Indiana border to avoid taxes, and they do it by driving two miles there and two miles back. And yes, that is importation, and if you bring in too much it’s smuggling.

    Because of that your distinction between a city and a village is all about where you draw that border. If you draw the border close to the village it is a city, if you draw it further away it isn’t. That is not a very useful distinction as you could draw the border of the city further away as well.

    What else would you define any kind of settlement in terms of?

    I think the easiest way is just population and density. e.g. “A city is a permanent settlement of at least 5000 people with a density of > 1000/sq mi”
    An alternative might be to consider a city as a governmental unit, or possibly as the sum of properties like division of labor, hierarchy, etc.”

    Those may not be quite as useful as you’d like since you want the definition to appear to be more of a natural law and less arbitrary. The problem is that a city is arbitrary, it is as much in the “I’ll know it when I see it category” as obscenity is.

    They’re all matters of ecological relationships, and the nature of those patterns of relationships offer hte only really valid means of defining them.

    When your tool is a hammer, everthing looks like a nail. Since you want a definition based on ecological relationships you can certainly create one, but don’t presume that it is any less arbitrary than any other definition. Also, don’t expect people to understand what you are talking about. My first thought when reading a definition (pretty much any custom definition of a word) is why are you redefining the word? Usually, words are being redefined in order to use the fallacy of ambiguity. In this case it seems to be more a case of a begging the question.

    I must say that the definition you are using isn’t as terrible as I originally thought, but it has some weaknesses. Most visibly in the definition of “requires importation”. I think the most important thing to add would be a minimum population density, and possibly a minimum size in either area or population (4 people in a small tent have a huge population density). Those changes would prevent the “line redrawing” that is possible with the current statement.

    JimFive

    Comment by JimFive — 20 September 2007 @ 9:17 AM

  37. If a modern small city (say 20000 people) could be made [to not require importation] by some as yet undiscovered means (Deus ex machine) that did not cause it to change in any other way, I would still call it a city, you wouldn’t.

    That’s not an unimportant detail; it’s actually pretty crucial.

    But let’s take a look at this city you suppose for us. Since it doesn’t need importation, it doesn’t need a transportation infrastructure. It doesn’t need grocery stores, restaurants, or zoning into commercial and residential areas. It won’t have exclusive specialization to provide for that importation, so the dynamic of different people filling different “jobs” would be lacking, which eliminates pretty much every definition of “city life.” In short, such a city looks nothing like a city. But you would still call it a city, even though it neither looks nor acts like any city that’s ever existed? Why? Do you also call ant hills or bee hives cities? What else do you call cities, since there’s apparently nothing intuitive about the term? Is your average tree a city?

    No, importation means crossing an arbitrary (usually governmental) border. People regularly import cigarettes into Michigan across the Indiana border to avoid taxes, and they do it by driving two miles there and two miles back. And yes, that is importation, and if you bring in too much it’s smuggling.

    That’s the law’s attempt to define importation. The law always comes up with confused definitions, because it so often deals with complete fictions, like political boundaries. It’s the hopeless mishmash of logical contradiction you’d expect when you proceed from false premises. As we’ve discussed before, the reality that political boundaries grasp at—the real phenomenon that underlies national sentiment—is the bioregion. Likewise, we all understand, intuitively, that there is such a thing as “importing,” and that it entails something more involved than going to your backyard garden. If we try to pin down what that actually means, what our intuition is grasping at, I think we’re pretty clearly looking at crossing bioregional boundaries. Importing means bringing in resources from some place where you don’t live. All the laws about imports are just the law’s attempts to translate that intuited notion into terms that can apply to legal fictions like state or national borders. The rest is classic GIGO.

    Because of that your distinction between a city and a village is all about where you draw that border. If you draw the border close to the village it is a city, if you draw it further away it isn’t. That is not a very useful distinction as you could draw the border of the city further away as well.

    Again, those borders are much less arbitrary when you deal with what importing actually means, and not the legal fictions around it. Where you live always draws the borders around you. You can’t live on the border of where you live.

    I think the easiest way is just population and density. e.g. “A city is a permanent settlement of at least 5000 people with a density of > 1000/sq mi”

    As I said in the article, that just starts to hint at the real phenomenon. Population and density are only important because they have such large impacts on what kind of ecological phenomenon the settlement is. For the most part, in nearly all places, a settlement with 5,000 people or more is going to have a certain ecological impact. But this is always a very round-about definition, like defining basketball players as people above a certain height. It gives us a hint of what a city really is, but that definition, too, is still just looking for what the real phenomenon is.

    An alternative might be to consider a city as a governmental unit, or possibly as the sum of properties like division of labor, hierarchy, etc.”

    A city is anything that calls itself a city? That’s absurd. As a sum of a given set of properties (like Childe’s criteria), you’re still at the same place as your first suggestion: you’re listing things (most, not all) cities have in common, rather than defining them. That’s a good first step towards an actual definition, but it’s not a definition in itself.

    Every settlement is an ecological phenomenon. Population density, division of labor, and so forth are all consequences of ecological relationships. Given what we know cities have in common, what is the definition of a city—what is the ecological phenomenon that we call a “city” defined by?

    Those may not be quite as useful as you’d like since you want the definition to appear to be more of a natural law and less arbitrary. The problem is that a city is arbitrary, it is as much in the “I’ll know it when I see it category” as obscenity is.

    Which is to say, it’s not at all. Neither cities nor obscenity actually work that way. “I know it when I see it” isn’t an answer, it’s a cop-out. I want my definition of a city to be true; whether it complicates things or simplifies them is irrelevant. On the contrary, you, Ran and the others arguing this point are arguing a conclusion purely on the basis of whether it suits your agenda, not me: you are not rejecting this argument based on faulty reasoning or bad evidence, but simply because it makes things simpler, which is no less wrong than dismissing an argument because it makes things more complicated.

    Cities have very clear, recognizable traits, and it doesn’t take much digging beyond that to being to understand them as an ecological phenomenon. If you come up with a different ecological phenomenon, it won’t look anything like a city, so why would you call it such?

    When your tool is a hammer, everthing looks like a nail. Since you want a definition based on ecological relationships you can certainly create one, but don’t presume that it is any less arbitrary than any other definition.

    This isn’t a presumption. Every human settlement is an ecological phenomenon, be they cities or any other. In fact, every social structure in every animal species is an ecological phenomenon. Your “hammer/nail” statement simply does not apply here. Everything else you might want to look at in a city—economy, infrastructure, sociology, and so forth—are all just different aspects of its ecology. There’s nothing arbitrary about this; it is, in fact, the only level on which we might define a city that isn’t arbitrary. Every other focus you might take picks some arbitrary subdomain of ecology, and defines a city in those terms; only in ecological terms do you take the entire phenomenon of “the city” into account.

    Also, don’t expect people to understand what you are talking about. My first thought when reading a definition (pretty much any custom definition of a word) is why are you redefining the word? Usually, words are being redefined in order to use the fallacy of ambiguity. In this case it seems to be more a case of a begging the question.

    Except I’m not redefining the city. You are, Ran is, etc., but not me. I’m just exploring the existing definition, following its implications to find the precise definition that all the others allude to.

    I think the most important thing to add would be a minimum population density, and possibly a minimum size in either area or population (4 people in a small tent have a huge population density). Those changes would prevent the “line redrawing” that is possible with the current statement.

    The line redrawing isn’t possible now, so long as you don’t try to marry the notion to a bunch of political fictions. But then, any time you try to mix any idea, regardless of how true it is, with a bunch of illogical junk like that, you’re going to have the same thing. AND any logical value with false, and the result is false.

    But any mention of population density and area will necessarily be an arbitrary allusion to correlations, and will, of necessity, make the definition inaccurate. The minimum population density that creates the “city” phenomenon in one area may be perfectly fine in another, depending on how productive the local ecology is. That’s where previous definitions in those terms failed.

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 20 September 2007 @ 4:54 PM

  38. That’s not an unimportant detail; it’s actually pretty crucial.

    Since you had previously declared that anything that requires importation is unsustainable then I maintain that it’s an unimportant detail when the point is that I can come up with something that most people would call a city, but you wouldn’t. That disparity seems to indicate a problem with your definition of city.

    Can you explain why you believe removing “required importation” would eliminate the need for an internal transportation structure as well as division of labor and all the rest? Lack of importation does not seem to eliminate grocery stores and restaurants to me. Lack of importation does not suddenly create a communist utopia where everyone has equal access to the resources of the city.

    Requiring importation is not the same thing as having importation.

    As a sum of a given set of properties (like Childe’s criteria), you’re still at the same place as your first suggestion: you’re listing things (most, not all) cities have in common, rather than defining them.

    And required importation of resources is just another property in the set.

    On the contrary, you, Ran and the others arguing this point are arguing a conclusion purely on the basis of whether it suits your agenda

    I wonder what you think my agenda could possibly be. I, personally, think that your conclusion (cities cannot survive the collapse) is correct. However, I think that you are basing that conclusion on a shaky definition of city that most people will hear and dismiss on the grounds that “requires routine importation” doesn’t really get us anywhere. If your goal is to convince then you need to address that fact.

    Importing means bringing in resources from some place where you don’t live.

    I’m not sure that’s terribly useful either. The !Kung live in a fairly large area of the Kalahari. By the same token, I live in the United States. I’m fairly sure the US produces enough food for its population, so the US doesn’t require importation, so it’s not a city, so it’s not a civiliation, Yay! We’re saved.

    Yes, that’s ridiculous. Obviously, the US is not a city but is made up of cities. Obviously, the !Kung do not live in cities, and their part of the Kalahari is not a civilization.

    An alternative might be to consider a city as a governmental unit, or possibly as the sum of properties like division of labor, hierarchy, etc.”

    A city is anything that calls itself a city? That’s absurd.

    I don’t think that governmental unit is quite the same thing as “anything that calls itself a city”. But in some sense, yes. In addition to living in close proximity the people in a city live under an agreed set of social rules that is enforced by a central authority that has taken that power from the governed(either by force of arms or democratically makes no difference).

    Is a dense collection of people requiring importation of resources a city without that governmental agency? I don’t know, I’m still thinking about it. Certainly, you will say yes because it is meeting your definition. However, due to the context of the definition in Jensen’s quote, above, without a shared culture it may not be a city, and what is government other than the enforcement of shared culture?

    JimFive

    Comment by JimFive — 21 September 2007 @ 8:38 AM

  39. Hey –

    This was brought up way earlier in the discussion but perhaps this is a good place to broach it again.

    Aside from place, importation implies another characteristic…. imported food is produced by people not of the city.

    Whether you are speaking of a horticultural village or of foragers, the people of that community are all involved in procuring their food. In a city, almost no one is involved in procuring their food. Thus it has to be imported from elsewhere.

    And before we talk about ‘defining boundaries’ again, no farmer in the hinterlands considers himself as being ‘in the city’ or ‘part of the city’ so there is a VERY intuitive understanding that it is not the same thing.

    Janene

    Comment by janene — 21 September 2007 @ 9:05 AM

  40. It’s funny, since I last commented on Sept. 8 I’ve been dwelling on the definition of a city and civilization. Defining a civilization by the tendency to have cities that require importation of resources seems to be a corollary. I would define civilization as the “Institutionalized movement of matter”. From this we can define a city as a concentration of institutionally moved matter.

    The anthropological evidence clearly supports this definition. Defunct civilizations are only identifiable by the amount of matter that was moved, and hunter gatherers leave almost no trace of their existence.

    Comment by Jason G — 1 October 2007 @ 3:49 AM

  41. Every culture moves matter, though. That would mean that there are no civilizations; rather, we need to speak of each culture being more or less civilized, based on how much matter it moves. That could work, but I don’t think that’s a very good definition. What are the relevant thresholds, for instance? These are necessarily ecological arguments, aren’t they? Only the ecological perspective subsumes all the others, which tells us something we’ve tried very hard to forget: we’re talking about ecological relationships, first and foremost. And the most obvious threshold, I should think, is the point at which the movement of matter reaches the point where your form of society requires regular importation (i.e., across bioregional lines, with distinct groups doing the harvesting/gathering vs. the consuming). I think that brings us right back to the definition I already offered.

    But I didn’t define civilizations as tending to have cities. Civilizations are societies with cities. That’s etymologically and historically what the word means. This is no mere correlation, any more than tumors are correlated with cancer. No society without cities is a civilization. Every society with cities is a civilization.

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 1 October 2007 @ 4:46 PM

  42. Can you explain why you believe removing “required importation” would eliminate the need for an internal transportation structure as well as division of labor and all the rest? Lack of importation does not seem to eliminate grocery stores and restaurants to me. Lack of importation does not suddenly create a communist utopia where everyone has equal access to the resources of the city. Also, lack of “required importation” does not necessarily imply lack of importation.

    Every human settlement is an ecological phenomenon, be they cities or any other. In fact, every social structure in every animal species is an ecological phenomenon. Your “hammer/nail” statement simply does not apply here. Everything else you might want to look at in a city—economy, infrastructure, sociology, and so forth—are all just different aspects of its ecology. There’s nothing arbitrary about this; it is, in fact, the only level on which we might define a city that isn’t arbitrary. Every other focus you might take picks some arbitrary subdomain of ecology, and defines a city in those terms; only in ecological terms do you take the entire phenomenon of “the city” into account./

    Every human settlement is a social phenomenon, be they cities or any other. In fact, every ecological structure in every animal species is a social phenomenon. My “hammer/nail” statement certainly applies here. Everything else you might want to look at in a city-economy, infrastructure, ecology and so forth-are all just different aspects of its sociology.

    Assertions all the way down.

    JimFive

    Comment by JimFive — 2 October 2007 @ 9:47 AM

  43. Janene,
    It is reasonable, I suppose, to define importation as the bringing in of goods [to a place] that were produced outside [of that place] by people who do not live in that place.

    To paraphrase Jason, when I buy tomatoes from my neighbor am I importing it into my home?

    It seems to me that if you say that “place” must be a city or larger, then you have city defined by importation and importation defined by city. So place must be defined differently. So what can one import into?

    In a city, almost no one is involved in procuring their food. Thus it has to be imported from elsewhere.

    Does the fact that it is imported, imply that it must be imported?


    JimFive

    Comment by JimFive — 2 October 2007 @ 9:59 AM

  44. Hey Jim –

    To paraphrase Jason, when I buy tomatoes from my neighbor am I importing it into my home?

    No… because, once again, importation implies a certain scale of distance and quantity. Besides, really? How many people buy produce from their neighbor? Generally, it takes on the form of sharing and that does make a significant difference.

    It seems to me that if you say that “place” must be a city or larger, then you have city defined by importation and importation defined by city. So place must be defined differently. So what can one import into?

    Hold up… if I’m not mistaken, I believe Jason has been making the point that defining a city by its size is weak (in an academic sense)…. so no, we are not defining “place” as city. We are defining a place which requires importation because it can provide for itself. All cities have this characteristic… but that is why it is a good description — because it fits a real world phenomenon.

    Does the fact that it is imported, imply that it must be imported?

    No… it is quite specifically the fact that it must be imported.

    Janene

    Comment by janene — 2 October 2007 @ 4:28 PM

  45. ummm… that is “because it can NOT provide for itself”

    ;-)

    Janene

    Comment by janene — 2 October 2007 @ 4:29 PM

  46. Can you explain why you believe removing “required importation” would eliminate the need for an internal transportation structure as well as division of labor and all the rest?

    Think about it for a moment. If you don’t need importation, then that means that everything you need is abundant and immediately available. You bend over and pick it up. So if there’s enough food to feed you all day laying on the side of the street, then why would you go to the grocery store? Why do you need a job? If you don’t need to buy things to survive, or go to work, why do you need a car, or streets, or buses, or subways? The whole market economy, as any economist will tell you, is simply a way to handle scarcity: more people want X than there is X to go around. Scarcity is the basis of all the economic systems we’re familiar with, as well as all the infrastructural and social institutions that govern them. They all exist for one reason only: to work out the implications of scarcity. Without scarcity, there’s little need for government, defense, business, or division of labor, because there’s no scarcity that needs to be met.

    Scarcity does not occur naturally. Scarcity must be produced. Originally, agriculture introduced scarcity by limiting food to a very limited subset of edible matter, which allowed for a small group of people—the first elites—to control the entire food supply. Consider the problems involved in controlling a farm’s harvest (padlocking the silo), versus the problems involved in controlling all the food a hunter-gatherer band might eat in their range (an omnipresent, omniscient vigil over hundreds of square miles), and it should be clear why scarcity emerged only with the emergence of agriculture.

    Cities inherit that pattern because they require importation to survive. That produces a scarce, controllable food supply. The market economy is actually a fairly good way of dealing with scarcity, all things considered. But if you can have a population with no need for imports, then that can only happen if that population does not face scarcity. To not face scarcity means that everything they need is freely and immediately available. So food is free, and immediately available. How often would you go to the grocery store if food were all around you, for free? Would you go to work, if everything you wanted was free and close at hand? What would be the use of taxes, government, division of labor, roads, or anything else we associate with civilization in such a situation?

    So yes, removing importation does mean the elimination of all those things; it only takes a few moments to follow the implications of that. Our entire economy and government is built solely to deal with scarcity. Removing importation means that you must have removed scarcity; otherwise, you’re going to need to import.

    Lack of importation does not seem to eliminate grocery stores and restaurants to me. Lack of importation does not suddenly create a communist utopia where everyone has equal access to the resources of the city.

    Only because you haven’t thought about it very much. Consider the implications of what you’re proposing. If there’s no importation, then there’s plenty there for everyone, freely available. Who’s patronizing your grocery stores and restaurants? Who’s going to work?

    Every human settlement is a social phenomenon, be they cities or any other. In fact, every ecological structure in every animal species is a social phenomenon. My “hammer/nail” statement certainly applies here. Everything else you might want to look at in a city-economy, infrastructure, ecology and so forth-are all just different aspects of its sociology.

    Except your counter-example isn’t true. I know you’d like this to be the arbitrary assertion you claim, but this rather illustrates why it isn’t. All human social interactions take place inside of a larger ecological context. The social sphere only encompasses intraspecies exchanges. It does not take into account the interspecies inputs that set the boundaries of that world. The most important social forms follow from the solutions made to problems that originate well outside the human sphere, just like the problem of scarcity that creates our economy and government. There is no viewpoint in which human social interactions impact Lotka-Volterra cycles. Ecological actors constantly shape our social world. Do social actors shape our ecology? Only insofar as the sum total of social life changes our behavior as an ecological actor.

    Put another way, even without social interaction (see the Ik), we would still be talking about an ecological phenomenon here. The opposite is not true; without the ecology, and only social interaction, there wouldn’t be anything there to discuss.

    It seems to me that if you say that “place” must be a city or larger, then you have city defined by importation and importation defined by city. So place must be defined differently. So what can one import into?

    Which is why I’ve been consistently referring to bioregion; a “place” is an ecologically viable space. See also watershed, or foodshed. It’s really not poking holes in the argument to point out things I’ve already addressed and answered, as if I’d never said them.

    Does the fact that it is imported, imply that it must be imported?

    No, but the proposed definition is that a city must import. You could import without needing to. If you could find a city that did not need to import anything (even if it chose to import), then you’d have a counter-example to my case. But no such place exists, nor has it ever.

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 2 October 2007 @ 4:49 PM

  47. If there’s no importation, then there’s plenty there for everyone, freely available.

    Why do you assume it must be freely available? How does lack of importation imply lack of property rights and the artificial scarcity associated with them?

    JimFive

    Comment by JimFive — 3 October 2007 @ 7:12 AM

  48. Which is why I’ve been consistently referring to bioregion; a “place” is an ecologically viable space.

    So are you saying that a city is a settlement that requires the bringing in of resources from outside of its bioregion?

    As I understand it from earlier posts about bioregions you would call e.g. the Ohio Valley a bioregion. I would expect that the Ohio Valley could support a fair sized city without requiring imports from outside the region.

    JimFive

    Comment by JimFive — 3 October 2007 @ 7:21 AM

  49. Why do you assume it must be freely available? How does lack of importation imply lack of property rights and the artificial scarcity associated with them?

    It’s not an assumption, it’s what it means to not need imports. If you don’t need imports, then everything must be freely available. If not, then you don’t have enough. That’s why you need to charge for it. So you need imports. Prices (and markets) exist only because of scarcity. You don’t have enough; pricing is how you negotiate who should get what you have, since there’s not enough for everyone.

    It’s no more an assumption that a lack of importation implies a lack of property rights, than it is an assumption that a lack of daylight implies that you can’t see the sun. That’s what a lack of imports means.

    So are you saying that a city is a settlement that requires the bringing in of resources from outside of its bioregion?

    Yes.

    As I understand it from earlier posts about bioregions you would call e.g. the Ohio Valley a bioregion. I would expect that the Ohio Valley could support a fair sized city without requiring imports from outside the region.

    I’ve written quite a few times that the “Nine Nations” are only the largest and most general level below that of the continent. They are, themselves, made up of watersheds and other ecological regions. Defining a bioregion brings with it all the same considerations as defining an ecology, because that’s what a bioregion is.

    Yes, the Ohio Valley could support a fairly sized city by itself. But the city would cease to be a part of the Ohio Valley ecology in a way that a hunter-gatherer camp or even a large horticultural village does not. It stops working with the rest of the ecology around it, so it becomes its own ecology. Pittsburgh is not the same bioregion as the Ohio Valley. It doesn’t look like the Ohio Valley and it doesn’t function like the Ohio Valley, or do you want to argue that there’s no ecological difference between the way the Allegheny Forest works, and the way Forbes Avenue works?

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 3 October 2007 @ 6:31 PM

  50. If you don’t need imports, then everything must be freely available.

    That is such a non-sequitor that I’m not sure how to address it.

    Not requiring imports means, based on the foregoing discussion, that all required materials are available within the boundary of the bioregion. That says nothing about the distribution or ownership of those materials.

    JimFive

    Comment by JimFive — 4 October 2007 @ 7:22 AM

  51. Non sequitur is Latin for “does not follow.” To be a non sequitur, it would have to not follow. This follows precisely. Ownership and distribution are only relevant in a scarce environment. Imports only make sense in a scarce environment, as it is an attempt to solve the same problems that ownership and distribution try to solve. If you don’t need imports, then you must have solved the problem—the same problem that ownership, distribution, government, division of labor, etc. all exist to solve, as well. If you don’t need imports, then you don’t need ownership or distribution, either, and since those are costs incurred because of the benefit they confer in a scarce environment, you can hardly expect people to continue paying that cost for very long when the benefit has somehow disappeared.

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 8 October 2007 @ 7:09 PM

  52. Jason, the benefit has not disappeared in a magical city, it exists, just the cost of it is now magically set to zero.

    But, it seems that there is a simple solution to this argument about cities.

    If we could call the cities modified to be sustainable something like sustainable population centers formerly known as cities, would that confuse matters too much?
    I realize that developing a more convenient word for the above will be required.

    It works for your panda/lion conflation by calling pandas bamboo-eating lions.

    Comment by _GI — 13 October 2007 @ 6:19 PM

  53. Reading Jonah Lehrer’s article “The Living City” in August 2007’s issue of SEED magazine left me questioning some ‘anarchoprimitivist’ ideas. As he points out, cities actually allow much LOWER resource consumption per inhabitant, in that being closer together allows greater efficiency in distribution of resources.

    Conceptualizing a world of megacities society in harmony with tribal village society is the next leapforward. After all, connecting global villages together will require electromagnetic transmission technology, and this requires more than temporary concentrations/gatherings of diverse villages.

    Humans do as humans will, so let the people choose their lifestyle. Their megalopolis culture is already alive and well– let’s find a way to integrate rather than separate with them.

    Signed,
    Valmiki the Younger

    Comment by Valmiki the Younger — 8 November 2007 @ 3:23 PM

  54. Follwed the discussion with interest, if belatedly. What confused me was the statement in the original article above, that “Exporting waste to match food intake cannot make a city sustainable, due to the law of conservation of energy. Such an arrangement finds precedent in Chinese “night soil,” and while it can slow the damage of an unsustainable system, it cannot make the system sustainable. Food imported into the city becomes human energy, and the city’s population uses some of that energy for breathing and blood flow and keeping themselves alive. They excrete only a fraction of it as waste. So with each iteration of the cycle, less energy comes back to the “farm” than originally left, so the system still exports the ecological health of the land to keep the city alive.”

    What occurred to me when I read it that if conservation of energy was key here, then all animals (incl. humans) would be unsustainable. Each one of us must take more from the land than we put back in refuse. I think this is important to remember in thinking about sustainable, soil building farming or permaculture, but is not an argument against the sustainability of cities because it applies to one person as well as many. (Green manuring with legumes, adding composted leaves and charcoal from urban trees and bushes, and other soil building practices can help make up the deficit.)

    I think the realy interesting question was lost in the wrangling over definitions: since many humans do flock, voluntarily (see Catal Huyuk, Tell Brak) to dense settlements (regardless of what they are called), do dense settlements make ecological sense, and up to what point? It appears that most of the early dense settlements did eventually deplete their environment, but some did not (eg., the terra preta people, maybe the American mound builders, Kwakiutl?)

    It seems that one of the theoretical problems with dense settlements is that people lose track of when to stop. Without accepting limits, the settlement eventually destroys its landbase. For a time, they resort to importation of resources, but eventually that too fails and they are done. (The early Sumerian cities like Eridu did not import food, to my knowledge. They began to do so when nearby soil was degraded. The Catal Huyuk people did not import food, they had no means for that: they collected it and perhaps grew it on the surrounding plain. The estimation of their numbers is 3,000 - 8,000.)

    The other interesting issue is: given the reality of dense settlements, how can such a settlement best feed itself while preserving the integrity of the land base? I still have the paintings in mind of small medieval towns in Italy, pre-plague, quite bucolic in appearance, surrounded by fields and gardens. It seems to me that self supporting dense settlements are a historical reality… up to a point.

    Comment by vera — 26 January 2008 @ 2:19 PM

  55. What occurred to me when I read it that if conservation of energy was key here, then all animals (incl. humans) would be unsustainable.

    Ha, good catch! Well, I’d say the real difference is that animals give back more than they take. In the linked post, I mainly focus on people, but you could look to the wisdom of the beaver as well. Obviously, though, that’s not in terms of pure energy input/output, so you could come back with the claim that cities could do the same thing—but they don’t. Yes, we have some species that flourish in cities: rats, cockroaches, some birds, etc. But compare that to the biodiversity of a similar area of woodland. It’s a difference of orders of magnitude. Cities may provide a home for dozens of different species, but they do so at the immediate cost of hundreds, and sometimes thousands. If you include their whole footprint, millions.

    …since many humans do flock, voluntarily (see Catal Huyuk, Tell Brak) to dense settlements …

    There’s little evidence that people flocked to those places voluntarily.

    …do dense settlements make ecological sense, and up to what point? It appears that most of the early dense settlements did eventually deplete their environment, but some did not (eg., the terra preta people, maybe the American mound builders, Kwakiutl?)

    The key to the answer to that is the crucial difference between agriculture and perma/horticulture.

    It seems that one of the theoretical problems with dense settlements is that people lose track of when to stop.

    I disagree. If it’s up to humans to figure it out, it’s already over; you’ve created a cartel, and whoever cheats first gets to become god-king of the new empire by conquering everyone else. No, the key is to live inside of ecological relationships that balance population as an emergent property of the way people live, without people ever thinking of conservation or ethics at all.

    (The early Sumerian cities like Eridu did not import food, to my knowledge. They began to do so when nearby soil was degraded. The Catal Huyuk people did not import food, they had no means for that: they collected it and perhaps grew it on the surrounding plain. The estimation of their numbers is 3,000 - 8,000.)

    Whether or not you import food at the moment hardly seems relevant: if you’re living in such a way that you’re exhausting the soil, you might as well be importing food already, because it simply means you’ll have to begin importing food soon.

    The other interesting issue is: given the reality of dense settlements, how can such a settlement best feed itself while preserving the integrity of the land base? I still have the paintings in mind of small medieval towns in Italy, pre-plague, quite bucolic in appearance, surrounded by fields and gardens. It seems to me that self supporting dense settlements are a historical reality… up to a point.

    Those small, bucolic towns enjoyed a brief period of respite we call “the Dark Ages,” during which a fall in complexity and population gave the land a short period to rest. But the agricultural practices they continued were already at work undermining that, increasing the population and leading eventually to the High Middle Ages, when plague and famine returned, and life became “nasty, brutish and short” once again. The history of western civilization leaves little doubt that such settlements are anything but self-supporting; the story of western civilization is the story of a 10,000 year chase, with civilization trying to outrun the shadow of its own consequences.

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 4 February 2008 @ 8:37 PM

  56. Well, all I meant is to say that if you want to refute Ran’s “return of compostables” argument, you’ll have to try another tack. In terms of conservation of energy, we animals have been taking more than we give for a gazillion years, and it has balanced out (excepting takerism). Still, I am no friend of cities, and figure they are not sustainable, though improvments certainly could be made.

    Large villages and small towns, I think in principle could be sustainable, if they were embedded in a sane economic system and sane soil care. Not likely this side of domination…

    The evidence from Catal Huyuk strongly points to voluntary high density. The settlement was profoundly egalitarian and peaceful (according to all data so far) and had no means to compel nearby small settlements to join them. But join they apparently did, and the town grew. It lasted some 1200 years. (For Tell Barak, check the 10 most notable stories of 2007 in Archaelogy mag.)

    This is all the more weird because Catal Huyuk appears to have been fully as repugnant as later cities: filthy, smelly, muddy, massively crowded (they had no streets), rodent-infested, not to mention offering a toilsome existence (and in the middle of marshes, of all places!). My tentative take on it is that people were drawn to this experiment in proto-urban living because of its novelty and “buzz”. I am open to other ideas (frankly, I am pretty stumped).

    <No, the key is to live inside of ecological relationships that balance population as an emergent property of the way people live, without people ever thinking of conservation or ethics at all.<

    Can you illustrate? The only 2 societies I know of who devised a turnaround and a way to keep their population stable (after it had burgeoned) were the Moriori and the Tikopia, both remote small island societies. Both did it by choice, when the necessity became apparent. (I know the “contraceptive on the hip” argument; do you know others, suitable to more settled people?)

    Comment by vera — 17 February 2008 @ 4:28 PM

  57. In terms of conservation of energy, we animals have been taking more than we give for a gazillion years, and it has balanced out (excepting takerism).

    I think we’ve done better than balanced out. Animals have proven themselves the best thing to happen to plants since wind. The plant kingdom has absolutely thrived, and in no small part thanks to the help of animals.

    Large villages and small towns, I think in principle could be sustainable, if they were embedded in a sane economic system and sane soil care.

    What do you mean by “large village”? I mean something on the order of 100-200 people. Those could work in the most ecologically productive areas, I agree. Much more than that, and you run into some very big problems.

    The settlement was profoundly egalitarian and peaceful (according to all data so far) …

    Actually, the evidence so far seems to point to Catal Huyuk as a regional religious center, a kind of prehistoric Vatican if you will, the first theocracy. You can see similar patterns, where religious sites offer the impetus for the first cities, in other regions too, like Chavín de Huantar in Peru. Religious sites entice a year-round priesthood, supported by pilgrims and trade, which eventually requires a more stable food supply, leading to agriculture. In most cases, permanent settlements predate domestication.

    …and had no means to compel nearby small settlements to join them.

    I think the religious authority obviously wielded by the Catal Huyuk theocracy definitely falls under the heading of a means of potent religious coercion to exert against neighbors.

    Can you illustrate? The only 2 societies I know of who devised a turnaround and a way to keep their population stable (after it had burgeoned) were the Moriori and the Tikopia, both remote small island societies. Both did it by choice, when the necessity became apparent. (I know the “contraceptive on the hip” argument; do you know others, suitable to more settled people?)

    Very few sustainable societies espouse any conscious conservation ethic. Yet conserve they do, not out of conscious effort, but because the way they live structurally forces them to enrich their environment. Examples abound. For post-collapse societies, look to the Amazon. We can now tell that the Amazon must have had incredibly complex and sophisticated societies prior to Columbus, and must have experienced a collapse of absolutely apocalyptic proportions from European diseases, yet the horticulture of these societies created the Amazon rain forest as we know it today. Its abundant mixture of different plants and animals did not happen naturally; native populations, largely using fire, kept different parts of the forest at different stages of succession, maximizing edge, and thus maximizing the biodiversity and ultimately the evolutionary density of the rain forest. In fact, I believe one could make a case, based on Ruddiman’s “early anthropocene” theory, that their successes in Amazonia may have played a role in off-setting the early global warming effects of agriculture’s spread.

    Now, modern Amazonian tribes rarely espouse any conscious ethic of conservation. They don’t do what they do in order to conserve the forest; they do what they do because it gives them the best chance of providing for themselves and their community. We can see this because of how often it goes awry: so-called “slash-and-burn” has become a demonized specter of Western environmentalism precisely because the tribes that practice it do not make any conscious effort to conserve the forest, so when Western aid swells their population, they simply cut wider gardens. But, even though those practicing it do not hold it as a goal, the practice of traditional Amazonian horticulture creates, sustains and enriches one of the richest ecologies on the planet.

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 17 February 2008 @ 5:29 PM

  58. We can see this because of how often it goes awry: so-called “slash-and-burn” has become a demonized specter of Western environmentalism precisely because the tribes that practice it do not make any conscious effort to conserve the forest, so when Western aid swells their population, they simply cut wider gardens. But, even though those practicing it do not hold it as a goal, the practice of traditional Amazonian horticulture creates, sustains and enriches one of the richest ecologies on the planet.

    hmm, to be clear, “slash-and-burn” really doesn’t help the Amazon. it releases nutrients into the soil, true, but the rainforest has so much, well, rain and the soils are generally so poor, that none of those nutrients hang around. from what i’ve seen so far, the process that had the greatest positive impact on the Amazon is “slash-and-char”. “slash-and-char” partially excludes oxygen and results in charcoal. charcoal has the potential to create an amazing number of places for microbes to live, particularly if it’s mixed with nitrogen (like, say, humanure, for example) leading to an amazingly healthy and diverse soil. and, as we all know, healthy, diverse soil –> healthy diverse ecosystem growing out of it.

    Comment by jhereg — 18 February 2008 @ 7:29 AM

  59. Actually, the evidence so far seems to point to Catal Huyuk as a regional religious center, a kind of prehistoric Vatican if you will, the first theocracy.”

    What evidence? What are your sources?

    Yup. slash and char is the way to go… but not all tribes seem to know/remember that. Using slash and burn in situations when the tribe cannot move frequently enough for the forest to regenerate is a prescription for disaster.

    As to village size, I am thinking 60 for a hamlet, 100-200 for a small one, up to 500 for midrange, and up to 1000 for a large one. What bad things will happen if a village grows to say 500?

    Comment by vera — 20 February 2008 @ 5:54 PM

  60. Oops,I was trying to respond to your quote about Catal Huyuk as the Vatican.

    Comment by vera — 20 February 2008 @ 5:55 PM

  61. Any comments on the above, Jason?

    The Tell Brak evidence I mentioned before comes from this story, which says, in part:

    Archaeologists have long believed that the world’s oldest cities lay along the fertile riverbanks of southern Mesopotamia, in what is now Iraq. There, in a land of plenty, went the idea, powerful kings began coercing their subjects to live together some 6,000 years ago. Their great invention–the city–later spread throughout the Near East. But last August, Harvard University archaeologist Jason Ur and two British colleagues turned that idea on its head. Their intensive field survey and surface collection of potsherds at the site of Tell Brak in northern Syria revealed that an ancient city rose there at exactly the same time as urban centers first sprouted up in southern Mesopotamia, but followed a very different model of development. “Urbanism,” says Ur, “is not one brilliant idea that occurred one place and then diffused.”

    Intriguingly, Tell Brak seems to have grown from the outside in. In the south, cities began as a central settlement–under a single authority–that grew outward. But Ur’s field survey shows that Tell Brak started as a central community ringed by smaller satellite settlements that expanded inward. “There isn’t a very tight control over these surrounding villages, at least at this beginning period,” says Ur. “So the assumption that we’re making is that people were coming in under their own volition.”

    Urbanization at Tell Brak, Syria by Heather Pringle; Archaeology Magazine v 61 n 1 (Jan 08)

    Comment by vera — 10 March 2008 @ 5:27 PM

  62. What evidence? What are your sources?

    I haven’t studied Catal Huyuk in some time, but these make the case:

    • Dietler, M. (2001). Theorizing the feast: Rituals of consumption, commensural politics, and power in African contexts. In M. Dietler & B. Hayden (Eds.), Feasts (pp. 65-114). Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.
    • Wason, P. (1994). The archeology of rank. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    As to village size, I am thinking 60 for a hamlet, 100-200 for a small one, up to 500 for midrange, and up to 1000 for a large one. What bad things will happen if a village grows to say 500?

    Well, looking to working examples, hunter-gatherer bands go from 5-30, horticultural villages usually have a few dozen people, and the capitals of chiefdoms usually top out at around 150. Pushing a settlement much past 150 pushes you past Dunbar’s number; you have a society too overpopulated to run simply on consensus and community, requiring you to create elites and hierarchy, which immediately sets off a Prisoner’s Dilemma of ever-escalating energy and complexity needs.

    The expansion of Tell Brak you cite reminds me of Rome’s formation from seven villages, actually, so I wouldn’t call that unprecedented. Certainly not the norm, but not unprecedented, either.

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 18 March 2008 @ 6:59 PM

  63. Thanks, Jason. I am battling a dread disease, and so gathering references is difficult right now. Could you explain in a nutshell what convinced you that the evidence (of those articles, which I take do not focus on Catal Huyuk) can be extended to Catal Huyuk itself? Especially without looking at the evidence presented in the latest excavations?

    I confess to, er, some annoyance at your wording. If you haven’t looked at the direct evidence from that location, would it not be more honest to say that indirect evidence points a certain way? I hope you are keeping your mind open to what is _actually_ there, meaning at Catal Huyuk.

    Comment by vera — 17 April 2008 @ 3:59 PM

  64. Sorry to hear about your illness–I hope you recover quickly.

    I can understand annoyance given your assumptions, but the articles cited there do discuss the archaeological evidence from Catal Huyuk.

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 17 April 2008 @ 4:57 PM

  65. Well, at 1994 Catal Huyuk was barely reopened for excavations. Mellart (the original excavator who was banned from the site many years prior) thought that there was a difference between residential houses and sacred houses, but that view has not panned out. There are no large structures that would suggest public architecture (and they have scanned the entire site even tho much excavation still awaits.

    Sorry if I have made an unwarranted assumption. In any case, I would very much like to hear what convinced you that the evidence points to a sacred city.

    The evidence against it, as I understand it, is as follows: the town appears to be a collection of extended households, egalitarian and fully functional in terms of the usual domestic activity. The town somewhat emptied in the summer, indicating that the people were out foraging and herding etc. In the spring, the area was a flooded marsh and not suitable for pilgrims. There was another site, Gobekli Tepe, that was built as a ceremonial area, much earlier than Catal Huyuk, and reachable from there. I have looked into Catal Huyuk extensively, and remember an interview with Ian Hodder (the current principal investigator) where he was asked whether he thought there was evidence for this being a ceremonial center and he said he sees absolutely no such evidence. So far, it looks like Catal Huyuk was a place of intensive experimentation with mud house building and plastering, as well as plaster art, and with living at very close quarters.

    Comment by vera — 18 April 2008 @ 4:50 PM

  66. Wason did deal with the evidence from the 1961-1965 excavations, which I hardly think we can simply dismiss, but Dietler largely confirmed Wason with the later evidence. They point to substantial evidence of dramatic social socioeconomic inequalities linked to funerals and ancestral shrines. While no clear public buildings exist, the simple evenness of house size on its own does not necessarily mean equality. Meanwhile, nearly every house had a fairly prominent shrine.

    As elite religion, the ancestors of particular, powerful family lineages were offered special shrines, rites, and rituals (often secret rituals open only to elite members) performed to ensure the continued fertility of the land. As popular religion, feasts (often on the occasion of the death of a lineage member) and other celebrations would typically be open to and shared with all tribal members and even to those of adjacent communities. (Rossano, 2005)

    With more readily available sources, this page’s description of religious iconography at Catal Huyuk does not make the explicit connection, but given the evidence of the rise of an elite ancestor worship cult at the site discussed above, reviewing the descriptions of Catal Huyuk’s iconography certainly adds more fuel to the fire.

    A number of Catal Huyuk shrines are obviously associated with a funerary cult, and there are many representations of death or funeral practices scattered throughout the city’s art. The vulture shrines at Catal Huyuk portray in eerie frescoes the excarnation practices wherein the dead were exposed, in open funeral houses of strange design, to the tearing beak of the griffin vulture, who stripped the skeleton of soft tissue. One painting shows a vulture with human legs, wings outspread over a tiny headless figure; it is the Goddess in her vulture epiphany, reclaiming what was always hers. The vulture is also found in the bull shrines, hidden in the clay breast.

    • Dietler, M. (2001). Theorizing the feast: Rituals of consumption, commensural politics, and power in African contexts. In M. Dietler & B. Hayden (Eds.), Feasts (pp. 65-114). Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.
    • Rossano, M.J. (2005). The religious mind and the evolution of religious forms. Presented at “Science and Religion: Global Perspectives”, June 4-8 2005, Philadelphia.
    • Wason, P. (1994). The archeology of rank. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 19 April 2008 @ 10:09 AM

  67. Well, I’ve finally put in an ILL request for the books you recommended. Not clear what they are saying, better hear it from the horse’s mouth. :-)

    As for the funerary customs, here is the picture at Catal Huyuk as described by Hodder: Some small minority of people were buried in the floors of the houses, mostly babies and young people. The number of bodies buried varies from house to house. One body was found thrown on a midden heap. The majority of dead folks were apparently exposed to the elements nearby (a trench was dug outside of C.H. and a mass of jumbled bones from many individuals was found). There are virtually no grave goods. I should also add that the bones of Catal Huyukers were examined for nutritionally privileged status which was not found.

    What in this picture says “inequality” or “elites” to you?

    Comment by vera — 30 April 2008 @ 11:18 AM

  68. Oh, I should add that the dead buried in the houses were sometimes disinterred, with body parts removed, the skull usually.

    Comment by vera — 30 April 2008 @ 11:21 AM

  69. Jason, I finally got Feasts, and there is nothing there about Catal Huyuk whatsoever. As it says, its about African societies. Did you get confused, thinking of some other article?

    Comment by vera — 3 May 2008 @ 12:34 PM

  70. Hey Jason,
    Well, I have looked at Dietler in the book Feasts, and also in another 1996 book where his article dealth with feasting in Neolithic Europe. Nothing on Catal Huyuk. So all I have to go on is Wason’s book. It is a shame it’s going off research that is now over 40 years old. Some things look very different now. For example, in his day, it was thought that the cattle were domesticated, they consisted of a high percentage of the diet there, and perhaps used for transport. None of that panned out; the cattle were all wild, and eaten much less frequently. Or another example: the clay balls found in quantities in the houses, Wason thinks they might be slingshots, well, turns out they were cooking aids.

    Similarly, the notion that there were shrines has not panned out for two good reasons: 1) The house floors are remarkably well preserved because of the inhabitants habit of replastering the floors every few months, or at least every year. 2) This makes the new microscopic archeology methods particularly useful there, methods which Melaart did not have in the 60s. And these methods have shown that all the houses were occupied and lived in per houses. Some of them were more decorated than others, and some had more dead in the floors than others. But the significance of that, if any, is unknown. It is known that so far, inequalities in nutrition or wealth did not exist, and each house built their own and did things their way, not using specialists. So all that adds up to remarkable egalitarianism. Grave goods are very few, and the most endowed graves are the children’s. While Wason postulates inherited status, I go with Occam’s Razor and stay with the simplest explanation: perhaps these children were particularly loved.

    As for C.H. being a ritual center, Wason says no such thing. He speculates that the town quarter dug up by Melaart may have been the neighborhood of the elite, but his argument falls flat in the face of the fact that some researcher tested the bones and found that they were all heavily stressed, saying all these people worked very hard, carrying heavy loads up and down hills. As for being a healing center, this seems to me unlikely for a stinky town in the middle of marshes where more than a third of the population had malaria. He also discusses the possibility that it was a trading hub, but seems ambivalent about that.

    In any case, Hodder said that he is planning now to move much faster, and instead of doing minute studies of only a few houses, he will move in a larger swath to get more idea of what the whole town was like. They have done some fancy-fangled xrays of the ground and say there is no large architecture, no public spaces. I am sure there will be surprises. But so far, there is no evidence for this being a ceremonial center, and there is a great deal of evidence for a profoundly egalitarian, though very strange, town.

    What I have been wondering about is this, though: Hodder never makes a good argument that it was an agricultural town. It is basically assumed; but many things speak against it. The cattle were wild. The art never represents ag activities. The sheep and goats they ate most often, well there is evidence they were penned and kept for some time, but wild and domesticated sheep from that time are very hard to tell apart, and they could have just corralled them for a time after a drive. Even so, the space to house animals permanently for each household seems to be lacking. As for ag implements, they seem missing. They had grain (and querns), but was it really domesticated? Same with legumes. They had no nearby land on which to have fields, they are said to have walked 7 miles out for that. Huh? How would they have protected their fields from the trampling and pilfering beasts? Maybe there were some gardens on the nearby areas that flooded every year. It all seems kinda fishy to me. More likely these people were relying on the marshes and river to provide their food, along with hunts and foraging and maybe incipient horticulture.

    Say, on another topic, do you know a good source for Paleolithic longevity? I am tired of seeing the same crap over and over about how these people could expect to live only 30 years, and grandmothers were a new invention of the Upper Paleolithic, when in fact when you deduct child mortality, they were pretty long lived all along. Would really appreciate a pointer in the right direction.

    Comment by vera — 27 May 2008 @ 2:14 PM

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