How could I resist:
“The world is a glorious bounty. There is more food than can be eaten if we would limit our numbers to those who can be cherished, there are more beautiful girls than can be dreamed of, more children than we can love, more laughter than can be endured, more wisdom than can be absorbed. Canvas and pigments lie in wait, stone, wood and metal are ready for sculpture, random noise is latent for symphonies, sites are gravid for cities, institutions lie in the wings ready to solve our most intractable problems, parables of moving power remain unformulated and yet, the world is finally unknowable.
“How can we reap this bounty? This book is a modest inquiry into this subject.”
Thus begins Ian McHarg’s classic introduction to ecological planning, Design with Nature (1969).
Back in July of 2018, I wrote a brief post remembering the extraordinary early PBS television program The Great American Dream Machine. In that post, I mentioned an earlier, pre-PBS program, Public Broadcast Laboratory. Both of these programs had a big influence on my values and my politics. In particular, one Public Broadcast Laboratory episode included an hour-long documentary directed by Austin Hoyt based on landscape architect Ian McHarg’s book, Design with Nature. That episode, “Multiply and Subdue the Earth,” was my introduction to Ian McHarg, and I was hugely impressed.
I’ve only been able to find one complete episode of Public Broadcast Laboratory and a partial episode: “Multiply and Subdue the Earth,” the McHarg documentary, both on YouTube.
“Multiply and Subdue the Earth” is below. It is of only adequate quality; you won’t gain anything by putting YouTube in full screen mode. And it’s grey-scale when the original film (and TV program) was color. Around the turn of the century, this documentary was still available for rental from a division of Indiana University, VHS format, but the folks who had done the transfer from film had waited too long. The color dyes were becoming distinctly magenta. Grey-scale may thus be a mercy. (Copies of Public Broadcast Laboratory episodes are also held at the Library of Congress and WGBH in Boston and possibly elsewhere. It may be that a fair copy exists or could be cobbled together.)
How do the documentary and the book hold up? Watch it yourself; the hour is well worth it:
The documentary is in large part a summary of McHarg’s book, but it begins where McHarg ends: with Dr. John Calhoun, another mostly forgotten yet influential thinker of the mid-20th Century. Dr. Calhoun was obsessed with population studies for various rodent species. He would set up rodent utopias where the population was supplied with as much food and water as needed, with no restrictions on breeding. Things would go well until population densities would reach a tipping point. Then rodent society, such as it is, would begin to break down and, even though they were supplied with adequate food and water, the population would collapse: rodent apocalypse!
This dovetailed very nicely with Paul Erhlich’s Population Bomb (1968) over-population argument because the reply to Erhlich and cassandras like him was that technology would save our asses: one way or another food and water and other necessities would be obtained or invented, especially with greed as the motivator. Calhoun’s experiments suggested that utopia, be it capitalist or socialist, would not suffice. You’ll note that in the documentary, much of Calhoun’s list of rodent social dysfunction address the insecurities of the time: gender definition, clockwork orange violent crime, aimless hedonism and sexuality, social isolation. That alone should raise some warning flags regarding the research.
Well, we pretty much know how to cure cancer in mice; it’s been studied so well and so often and for so long. But humans are not mice. While I’m not a scholar and so can’t provide the cites (I recall that back in the 1970s there was an article about this in Scientific American), I do know that others were motivated by Calhoun’s work to study population densities in other species. Other species don’t all react as rodents do and even rodents have coping strategies when the means are available to them.
In the 1960s and 1970s, it was also common to associate population growth with poverty. This was reasonable enough when one considered the condition of the Indian subcontinent and of China at the time. Subsequent experience and research shows that capitalism benefits from expanding population and doesn’t deal well with declines — capitalism is expand or die, after all. On the other hand, it does not follow that expansion can continue indefinitely.
Calhoun also inspired at least two major works of fiction. One is said to be Robert O’Brien’s award-winning Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (1971) that later became a nicely done animated feature movie. If I have doubts, it is mainly because O’Brien’s book postulates NIMH experiments boosting the intelligence of rats and mice (genetic engineering, circa 1971!) and because Calhoun was hardly the only person at the Institute doing research with rats.
The other book is John Brunner’s 1967 classic novel, Stand on Zanzibar. Brunner’s novel takes Calhoun seriously and applies a straight-line projection of the trends as would be expected from Calhoun’s experiments. I’ve mentioned Brunner’s novel twice before on this blog and this post is supposed to be about Ian McHarg not John Calhoun not John Brunner; however, McHarg did facilitate a study of health in Philadelphia that suggested some degree of negative correlation between the density of population and good health, supporting Calhoun’s thesis. This was not in the documentary, but an account of methodology and findings is in McHarg’s book.
Design with Nature is an education about ecology (which is not just biology) and its use in planning with case studies encompassing a wide variety of landscapes, including urban and suburban environments, and a discussion of philosophy. If you can find a hard cover, coffee table edition, you should prefer that larger format as the book is lavishly illustrated and the graphics are not just pretty but also a vital part of the content.
For a democratic socialists such as myself, the thunderclap was not so much McHarg’s distaste for market forces and his embrace of planning, but that he was able to provide a coherent and workable methodology of just how planning could be done. Furthermore, it is a methodology that can be computerized, although in 1968, that was aspirational rather than practical.
McHarg contends land-use decisions cannot be left entirely to the market, whatever “market” means. As McHarg put it:
The economists… ask with the most barefaced effrontery that we accommodate our value system to theirs. Neither love nor compassion, health nor beauty, dignity nor freedom, grace nor delight are important unless they can be priced. If they are non-price benefits or costs, they are relegated to inconsequence. The economic model proceeds inexorably towards its self-fulfillment of more and more despoliation, uglification and inhibition to life, all in the name of progress — yet, paradoxically, the components which the model excludes are the most important human ambitions and accomplishments and the requirements for survival. (Page 25)
If the market, left to itself, leads to “despoliation, uglification and inhibition of life,” the environmental record of planning under soviet-style “real existing socialism” is catastrophically worse. McHarg doesn’t touch that subject at all though there were surely inklings trickling out from behind the “iron curtain.” But McHarg does insist on another necessary dimension: values. Here, McHarg places the blame on the “great western religions born of monotheism,” hence the title of the documentary, “Multiply and Subdue the Earth.” Considering that other cultures, including the avowedly atheist soviet socialism, have done as poorly if not worse, this strikes me as being a bit of false determinism born of personal grievance: something connected with McHarg’s father, I would speculate after having read McHarg’s memoir, A Quest for Life. Still, a belief “that man and nature are indivisible, and that survival and health are contingent upon an understanding of nature and her processes” (page 27) seems to be necessary.
One thing that is not discussed in the book is how this planning might be institutionalized. The documentary suggests that land-use planning be moved from the local level to the state, using Hawaii as an example. In the movie, at least, McHarg endorses the idea. I’m not sure. Hawaii, after all, is a geographically small state. It could be a useful move, but consider the sometimes willful, pigheaded misunderstanding of things like environmental impact statements (not a requirement of local zoning but of state or federal) and how easily such requirements can be portrayed as “elite” outsiders dictating to the detriment of local residents: Perhaps a multilevel governmental approach would be better, though the division of responsibilities and appeals would need to be thought out better than my vague observation.
In retrospect, McHarg was entirely too optimistic about the weight of science in the process. The evidence, even the science, can always be argued over. Regulations that describe process and decision-making are hard to write without self-subversive ambiguity or without stultifying rigidity or without being an exercise in well-intentioned futility. (Regarding the last, McHarg was totally contemptuous of strip-mining regulations that required companies to restore the land “to its original contours.” What the hell does that mean?) There is also the issue of people using the process for ends alien to its intent: gaming the system. Whether it be Not In My Back Yard fanaticism or “paid troublemakers,” this aspect is pretty well an assumed motive by those afflicted with the pathological cynicism of our times.
The law — or more specifically the courts — is also a difficulty in the United States. According to McHarg’s memoir, A Quest for Life, he was aware of the difficulties involved in the “takings” aspect of constitutional law. It appears that he underestimated the difficulties there, as well. The U.S. Supreme Court has been eager to require governments to pay for any inconvenience imposed on landowners, even when said inconvenience would pay dividends by avoiding predictable disaster, like not building on a primary dune along the seashore or in a floodplain of a river — never mind that in building so, the developer is “taking” from future owners of that property, the government (disaster rescue and recovery) and the surrounding community. If it can’t be priced, it doesn’t exist, and most courts are committed to advancing a libertarian agenda whenever they can get away with it.
It is a pity: McHarg had long ago grown weary of arguing aesthetics with his clients. Designing with nature is intended to not only be beautiful but also to save money by minimizing costs of construction and maintenance, while delivering beauty and continuing productivity — the substance behind that happy happy buzz word “sustainability”. That approach is also a clue as to how this might be integrated into a social democratic version of capitalism — though, granted, it is not clear that such a version of capitalism is itself genuinely sustainable as social democracy.
2019 will be 50 years since both the publication and the documentary. It’s really past time that we touch base with what may be last hopeful moment in our history. You can start by watching the documentary and by reading the book. Remember, it is entirely possible to profitably hunt a species to extinction (it’s been done), and likewise we have a grand opportunity in the next several decades to demonstrate that it is entirely possible to profitably breed and consume ourselves to the same end.
Post Script: For an example of fairly extreme human crowding, consider Hong Kong: