The conundrum with cities

There’s no shortage of commentary that getting from the status quo to a more humanistic and sustainable system of social organization means radical social change and lifestyle changes. But as people face increasing deprivation, both in real terms and relative to currently utilized indexes of productivity, in the current paradigm,[1] it may be the case that they are inclined to hang on to what they have even more vociferously because the fact that our way of living constitutes a paradigm places alternatives beyond imagining. “Lifestyle change” is thus framed as more deprivation in a society that heavily emphasizes consumerism.

Further, this deprivation tangibly supports a conservative frame, as George Lakoff explains:

Survival in the world is a matter of competing successfully. . . . The world must be and must remain a competitive place. Without competition, there is no source of reward for self-discipline, no motivation to become the right kind of person. If competition were removed, self-discipline would cease and people would cease to develop and use their talents. The individual’s authority over himself would decay. People would no longer be able to make plans, undertake commitments, and carry them out. . . .

Even if survival were not an issue, even if the world could be made easier, even if there were a world of plenty with more than enough for everybody, it would still not be true that parceling out a comfortable amount for everyone would make the world better and people better. Doing that would remove the incentive to become and remain self-disciplined.[2]

Conservatives see the world as a harsh place; as the world we live in becomes harsher, their view more closely accords with our experience, and thus their explanation that we must balance government budgets even at the expense who have already been brutalized may appear sensible. The consequence is that we become less human and, crucially for conservatives, more amenable to authority, which as Lakoff explains in what he calls his “strict father” model of morality, is moral authority.[3]

But there is another view of the world that dates back farther, possibly as long as 500,000 years ago, possibly longer. This is a view of the world that we live in harmony with, in small, sustainable, and largely egalitarian societies, apparently mostly peacefully and in good health with each other. It is a view that nature provides all that we need and which persists among indigenous people who have yet to be assimilated into the dominant and dominating order.[4] It is, of course, inconceivable that we could go back to living as they do, at least given the number of people now making demands upon our planet. Our population is now vastly larger and many of us live in huge concentrations—cities—that are many orders of magnitude larger than the bands and tribes that predominated in the Paleolithic.[5] The challenge is to find a synthesis between the violent status quo which developed out of a recursion that both enabled and was facilitated by authoritarianism and a peaceful, harmonious sustainability that is also our legacy.[6]

There are multiple problems with cities. One, quite obviously, is governance. Malcolm Gladwell marshalls evidence that suggests humans really shouldn’t attempt to organize themselves in groupings of larger than 150 people, that is, a relatively small tribe in Jared Diamond’s schema,[7] and certainly a far cry from today’s urban populations. Synthesizing Noam Chomsky’s depiction of syndicalism with Gladwell’s notion of “connectors,” gregarious people capable of forming weak ties with tens of thousands of people, I suggested a form of self-government by consensus that instead of relying on a rotation through an entire population of people—including those who have no talent or interest for such negotiation—would rely on those “connectors” to represent others, but to be completely honest, I am still not satisfied with this as it fails to resolve the issues of dominance that may appear when a select group of people—the “connectors”—may more often speak for others.[8]

The social arrangements that Adam Smith counted on to balance his new economics—the sturdy communities where the baker and the butcher actually knew each other, and where they had to show themselves good citizens because they wanted credit from the banker—turned out to be fragile. When the forces of economic liberty Smith helped to unleash began to erode those social arrangements, many people celebrated instead of mourned. Living in a community comes with drawbacks; small societies can be parochial, gossip-ridden, discriminatory. There was something liberating about escaping them, about being on your own.[9]

In that suggestion, I also failed to reckon with problems of accountability. First, a factor in small societies that helps to keep people in line is that everyone knows everyone else.[10] That’s what Gladwell’s roughly 150-person limit is largely about, because 150 is roughly the number of people with which each human “can have a genuinely social relationship, the kind of relationship that goes with knowing who they are and how they relate to us.”[11] Accountability is essential in any authoritarian conception of justice in which some people hold others “to account,” to act in accordance with established rules,[12] but even a system of restorative justice that emphasizes getting to root causes (including dominance and the system of social organization that emphasizes dominance)[13] would likely involve identifying “culprits” so as to thoroughly investigate what led them to act as they did.

Second, that accountability may constrain not only acts that are harmful to others but, I would suggest, creative acts. As Bill McKibben put it, in moving from the countryside to the cities, “we surrendered a fixed identity—a community, an extended family, deep and comforting roots—for, quite literally, the chance to ‘make something of ourselves.'”[14] It is possible to argue that while there is no deficit of creativity in small societies, that creativity as a group process[15] may sometimes, not always, be enhanced where there is broad exposure to a wide range of ideas from a vast number of people and may indeed help to explain the attraction many people feel for cities. As Dean Keith Simonton put it in an essay that I’m failing to do justice to here, “when a society is characterized by multiple belief systems engaged in controversy and debate, each vying for the allegiance of a civilization’s denizens, creativity has more latitude for growth.”[16] But Simonton also illustrates that creativity may also be suppressed in large, authoritarian societies, particularly those engaged in wars or with hostile ideologies.[17] For today, I will leave this problem aside; I entirely lack a satisfactory answer.

Another problem with cities is that they tend to be distant from sources of food, particularly as surrounding suburbs encroach upon often arable land. Michael Pollan harshly critiques the industrialized food systems that traumatize (and abuse) animals, feed cattle corn that they’re ill-equipped to digest, highly process food to “add value,” and produce “fast food” that’s not only weak on flavor but unhealthy. This is a system that derives economic value from mass production and, it must be said, from collusion between government and corporate agriculture.[18]

Moreover, our centralized food system relies heavily on long distance transportation, which may become less feasible as oil becomes harder to obtain. Indeed, Bill McKibben suggests that this dependence on an increasingly scarce resource will undermine our centralized system of social organization and that we would do well to decentralize before decentralization is forced upon us. McKibben argues not just for local food and local radio, but local everything possible, which he believes would compel an interaction between people on a local level of all classes that would restore some supposed virtues of the pre-industrial era. I am unpersuaded that his vision, based largely on his experience in Vermont,[19] will scale up well to metropolitan areas with populations of tens of millions of people. Further, thinking of James Madison’s attempt to manage social inequality by protecting the minority rights not of any stigmatized or disadvantaged group, but rather those of wealthy white property-owning males,[20] and indeed of the arrogance of rulers who sought to repress any challenge from those whom they sought to keep ignorant and thus could rationalize treating as ignorant,[21] I’m less inclined to credit the pre-industrial era with the neighborly virtues that McKibben imagines.

Botanical Apartments

Fig. 1. Botanical apartments in Phuket, Thailand

But then this morning, I came across a photograph of “botanical apartments” in Phuket, Thailand (figure 1). And I thought to myself, what if, instead of decorative plants, which I presume those to be on the roofs and on the balconies, there were food-producing plants?

In raising that question, I am relying on some immediately obvious assumptions. First, that buildings are spaced sufficiently far apart and can be oriented such that there is sufficient sunlight for food plants to do well. Second, that the space introduced between buildings can be used for more crops and for parks that dramatically increase quality of life. And third, that it is possible to rearrange and rebuild cities around such a structure. McKibben points out how wasteful and poisonous, both of land and people, the now-dominant system of agriculture is. It works for neoliberals, but forces ordinary people to the cities for jobs that are increasingly eliminated in “economies of scale.”[22] Pollan decries a corn “farm [which] might feed 129, [but] can no longer support the four who live on it” because the land is used only for corn.[23] It seems indeed that the efficiency so often ascribed to modern agriculture is an illusion measurable only in corporate profits.

As I look at that photograph, I’m thinking we can do much better. I have not, by a very long shot, solved the problems of cities. But I also see it as possible for people in cities to once again see the world as providing all they need.

  1. [1]Michael Cooper, “Lost in Recession, Toll on Underemployed and Underpaid,” New York Times, June 18, 2012,; Steven Greenhouse and David Leonhardt, “Real Wages Fail to Match a Rise in Productivity,” New York Times, August 26, 2006,; massacio, “The Death of the Liberal Bargain,” Firedoglake, August 12, 2012,; Theresa Riley, “Making the Rent on Minimum Wage,” Bill Moyers, April 2, 2012,
  2. [2]George Lakoff, Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2002), 67-69.
  3. [3]Lakoff, Moral Politics.
  4. [4]John H. Bodley, Victims of Progress, 5th ed. (Lanham, MD: AltaMira, 2008); William James Burroughs, Climate Change in Prehistory: The End of the Reign of Chaos (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University, 2005); Max Oelschlaeger, The Idea of Wilderness (New Haven, CT: Yale University, 1991).
  5. [5]Jared M. Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (New York: W. W. Norton, 1999).
  6. [6]David Benfell, “Any sufficiently advanced technology….”, December 20, 2011,
  7. [7]Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel.
  8. [8]Linda Martín Alcoff, “The Problem of Speaking for Others,” in Who Can Speak? Authority and Critical Identity, eds. Judith Roof and Robyn Wiegman (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois, 1995), 97-119; David Benfell, “Re-ordering society in a Localizing World,”, December 6, 2011,; Noam Chomsky, “Notes on Anarchism,” in Chomsky on Anarchism, ed. Barry Pateman (Edinburgh: AK, 2005); Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (New York: Little, Brown, 2002); Uri Gordon, Anarchy Alive! Anti-Authoritarian Politics from Practice to Theory (London: Pluto, 2008).
  9. [9]Bill McKibben, Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future (New York: Holt, 2007), 127.
  10. [10]McKibben, Deep Economy.
  11. [11]Gladwell, The Tipping Point, 179.
  12. [12]Gordon, Anarchy Alive!
  13. [13]Wanda D. McCaslin and Denise C. Breton, “Justice as Healing: Going Outside the Colonizers’ Cage,” in Handbook of Critical and Indigenous Methodologies, Norman K. Denzin, Yvonna S. Lincoln, and Linda Tuhiwai Smith, eds. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2008).
  14. [14]McKibben, Deep Economy, 96.
  15. [15]Alfonso Montuori and Ronald E. Purser, “Social Creativity: Introduction,” in Social Creativity, eds. Alfonso Montuori and Ronald E. Purser, vol. 1 (Cresskill, NJ: Hampton, 1999), 1-45.
  16. [16]Dean Keith Simonton, “The Creative Society: Genius vis-à-vis the Zeitgeist,” in Social Creativity, eds. Alfonso Montuori and Ronald E. Purser, vol. 1 (Cresskill, NJ: Hampton, 1999), 270.
  17. [17]Simonton, “The Creative Society,” 265-286.
  18. [18]Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (New York: Penguin, 2007).
  19. [19]McKibben, Deep Economy.
  20. [20]James Madison, “The Federalist No. 10,” in Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, The Federalist Papers, ed. Garry Wills (New York: Bantam, 2003), 50-58.
  21. [21] Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society (Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1991).
  22. [22]McKibben, Deep Economy.
  23. [23]Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

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