Novel Cities: A Revolution in Generativity by Julianne Lutz Warren

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21 minutes of reading

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair . . .

—Charles Dickens

A Tale of Two Cities (1859)


The Period

Dickens was describing an earlier epoch of revolution. Today another epoch of revolution has arrived, a recurring event in the histories of the universe, Earth’s community, and humanity. These embedded histories of change are wheels within wheels. They sometimes turn together, spinning out intricate weaves of increasing complexity. They sometimes whirl in opposition, destroying what the other has created and creating something new out of what the other has destroyed. They are always in relationship with one another.

Individuals—whether desperate or carefree—flock into cities to become part of complex communities of exciting possibility. More than half of all people alive today are city dwellers. It is likely that in the next quarter century urban populations and the extent of lands they inhabit will expand more than in all history. Cities are covering Earth like a growing, electrified constellation of bright, shimmering stars. This network is outshining old boundaries between humanity and global nature, metropolis and hinterland, and the proportional influence of each person’s will while, paradoxically, it is also uniting billions of imaginations into a thrilling, collective synergy of inventive power.

Since that power has been directed by the standards of a human culture of empire, however, it has been spinning out innovation in opposition to the innate creativity of the planet. That is, in order to make things of interest only to humans, modern, urbanizing humans have been destroying relationships between themselves and other members of the world-of-life. We also have been causing other members of the world-of-life to lose their long-evolved interrelationships with one another. Somehow we have been thinking, moreover, that this general pattern of dominance has been settled forever—that human rule of Earth’s community produces wealth, secures freedom, and will eventually lead to our sovereignty over other planets and the stars, forever.

The embedded wheels of the cosmos, Earth community, and humanity turn one way or another in relationship to each other, however, and there is no escaping this mutual dependency. For as long as we have spun out our humanity based in an aggrandizing belief to the contrary, the wheel of the rest of Earth’s community in relationship with the Sun has been turning in opposition—in revolt. Warming and rising oceans, currents of carbon-filled air, barren soils stripped of their native, co-evolved plants, animals, and indigenous cultures—such ingredients may be cooking up the next record-breaking hurricane, the longest droughts and famine, the widest-spreading forest fires. As Dickens said, “All these things, and a thousand like them, came to pass. . . . Environed by them, [while the wheels turned] . . . unheeded, [those members of the culture of empire] carried their . . . rights with a high hand. Thus did the year . . . conduct their Greatnesses, and myriads of small creatures—the creatures of this chronicle among the rest—along the roads that lay before them.”

The Roads That Lay Before Us

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other . . .

In “The Road Not Taken” (1916), Robert Frost famously describes an earlier choice he had made “that has made all the difference.” Our present epoch of Earth revolution is likewise a time of crucial choices—for humanity seeking not only safety and wealth, but meaning and resilience in relation to the creative prospects of the greater Earth and vast universe. To be part of this universe evolving along its irreversible arrow of time is to be certain that the future is at least partly unknowable.[1] To be human is, perhaps, to be able to see farther down the road than most other kinds of beings. It is also to be able to join ignorance and knowledge together with sympathy and self-interest into actions consonant with complex moral thinking. So, going forward, we do well now to pause a moment to look down the more trodden path as far as we can—the path of the “terminal paradox.” And, then, we do well to consider choosing another path—a path of generativity.[2]

Terminal Paradox

Because of the complex, interdependently embedded nature of Nature, when one wheel of change turns only for itself, it turns against the rest and, paradoxically, leads to its own end. It is true within individual humans—when a solitary virtue prevails over a greater host, suffocating all virtues’ fullest promise. It is true for the Earth community when a disambiguated master narrative of one species overpowers the rest, bringing disaster to all. It is true for stars—when the diverse stellar elements burn forcefully into all one element, ending the star. This trajectory of self-wreckage, akin to a Pyrrhic victory, is what Czech novelist Milan Kundera calls a “terminal paradox”—the ambiguity of a total victory that is also a total defeat. It is similar to what Shakespeare put into the mouth of King Claudius: “For goodness, growing to a pleurisy,/Dies in his own too much.”

A Solitary Virtue: The Suffocation of Love

Reverence—Deep respect, veneration, or admiration for someone or something, especially a person or thing regarded as sacred or holy.

Oxford English Dictionary[3]

I am fourteen years old. I turn on the television. The show Cosmos is playing. There are images of vast darkness spangled with bright, colorful stars and swirling galaxies. Spine-tingling electronic piano and string chords spill confidence and mystery into my family’s living room, supporting Carl Sagan’s nasally spoken words: “The surface of the Earth is the shore of the Cosmic Ocean. On this shore we’ve learned most of what we know. . . . Some part of our being knows this is where we came from.” My stomach feels light. My father rushes in from the other room. He stands in front of the screen and switches off the television.

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” says the book of Proverbs, a book of my family’s Christian religion. And, in Genesis, God said that he had created the heavens and Earth. The New Testament book of Ephesians commands children to obey their parents “so that it may be well with you and you may live well on Earth.”

That was it for Cosmos.

I was impressed with God’s power both as creator and disciplinarian. After creating the first humans, God had given them dominion over all the Earth. God made one rule—they were not to eat the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. A serpent, though, had convinced the first woman to eat the forbidden fruit. She then gave some to the man, who also ate it. The terrible consequence was that from then on all humans would die. Because of their misdeeds, God also made serpents thereafter fear women, women fear men, and men fear the land. In the place of a pleasant garden the ground would grow thorns and thistles. And beyond Earth were also the tortures of hell or the raptures of heaven.

I had the will to live well on Earth and to stay out of hell and head for paradise. So, I combed through the Bible for more and more rules about how to do this and—out of strict reverence toward God—I piled them up like sand bags all around me:

“I will know nothing of evil.”

“Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

“Wives be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord.”

“No one comes to the Father except through me.”

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves.”

Buried beneath the overburdens of reverence, there was little left to deny. Too much reverence for reverence, paradoxically, had turned the wheel suffocatingly inward, isolating me from the threatening community outside. Reverence had turned against the virtues of faith and hope it more properly supported, ending wisdom. Moreover, reverence, taking control, had turned against the since-forgotten nature of the God I had once imagined to revere—that outreaching mystery called love.[4]

A Disambiguating Narrative of Love: Laying Waste Earth’s Community

“Only let the human race recover the right over nature that belongs to it by divine bequest, and let power be given it; the exercise thereof will be governed by sound reason and true religion,” wrote English natural philosopher Francis Bacon (1561–1626).[5] Since the first humans had eaten the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, humankind’s God-given dominion had been compromised. Rather than sandbagging ourselves with reverence against recklessness or wallowing in regret, however, our species, according to Bacon’s compelling narrative, should get to work restoring our rights.

With their special endowment of reason people could—indeed, should—reclaim their sovereignty by penetrating the secrets of how the observable world worked in order to command its causes for desirable effects. The identification of desirable effects would be governed by the virtue oflovethat is, more precisely, by Philanthropia, or love of mankind—which, by Bacon’s definition, was the balance of all virtues and thus not vulnerable to excess. The expression of this virtue, however, was susceptible to errors that should be avoided, including: extending it to living creatures other than humans, like dogs and birds; giving extra rewards to undeserving people (including women who might be witches); and forgetting that self-love was the proper pattern for how to love others.[6] Ultimately, then, the combined power of human-reason-loving-humanswould guide the whole creation forward to, as he put it in his utopian story, New Atlantis (1627), “the enlarging of the bounds of Human Empire, to the effecting of all things possible”—that is, create heaven on Earth for humans.

Here are just a few of the “wonderful works of Nature, chiefly such as benefit mankind” that Bacon imagined:

  • curing diseases counted incurable
  • increasing the ability to suffer torture or pain
  • increasing and exalting the intellectual parts
  • making new species
  • transplanting one species into another
  • making instruments of destruction, such as war and poison
  • making rich composts for the Earth
  • turning crude and watery substances into oily and unctuous substances
  • producing artificial minerals and cements

In fact, in New Atlantis—a blueprint for the gilded, straight-streeted city of the future—Bacon imagined experimental caves for studying minerals and mining methods and a scheme for organizing scientific research, which collaborators championed. The Royal Society, founded in 1660 in London, launched an endeavor that forwarded the process for making bubbling Champagne; observing the first micro-organisms; discovering the action of gravity; inoculating against smallpox; demonstrating the electrical nature of lightning; discovering the hidden lives of nesting birds, the influences of earthworms on soil, and the bones of the first land dinosaur; detecting the neutron with applications that released the atom’s power; recognizing the need to study and thus protect frail ecosystems, like that of Aldabra Atoll, from militarization; determining the structure of DNA; noticing the disappearance of ozone over Antarctica; studying potential nanotechnology applications; and summarizing the causes, consequences, and uncertainties of global climate change, among many other things.

In 1636, Bacon’s protégé, Thomas Bushnell, obtained the grant to royal mines in Wales where he invented new methods for getting at more ore. He also recognized the convenience of erecting a mint near the mines where silver coins were issued.[7] Mining was an ancient practice, but never before had it occurred at the escalating scale of the sixteenth century. Increasing human population, combined with the rise of capitalism across most of western Europe, quadrupled metal mining operations globally. At the same time, as large swaths of forest communities were cut down, shortages of wood used for smelting ores made coal increasingly important. Over the next one hundred years, coal became England’s chief form of energy for industrialization. Moreover, cities were spreading as centers of trade and market production, generating wealth for ambitious leaders of strengthening nation-states and, later, of large corporations. In addition to coal, by the end of the nineteenth century, oil and gas had become prime commercial energy sources fueling the escalation of this rapid growth.[8]

If trends continue, nearly 90 percent of a human population of 10 billion will live in cities by 2100.[9] Cities—like the moon reflecting the Sun—mirror humanity’s virtues and values. Given Philanthropia as an inclination and the capacity for reason to carry it forward, up until now we have effectively built cities for the comfort of our own species alone. Given self-love as the pattern for love of our fellows, our collective urban inventiveness has been geared toward personal gain. Given distribution of gain based on merit, cities stimulate class divides.

New York City, for example, one of the world’s largest cities within one of the world’s most powerful nations, is home to more than eight million unique people, but has excluded many other species and races once growing together there—Lenape people, wolves and deer, southern flying squirrels and trout, mountain laurel and skunkweed, milksnakes, green frogs, Eskimo curlew, and Hollis soil.[10] The city is warring against others that have become pests, like cockroaches, rats, and pigeons. It stops and frisks blacks and Latinos. New York City is famous for art galleries and theaters and for immense personal wealth, with a GDP of over 1,000 billion dollars and the second highest number of billionaires on Earth. It is also infamous for ingenious crime as it is home to Wall Street, the center of the 2008 financial crisis, though not a single top Wall Street or large commercial bank executive has been convicted of criminal charges. New York City also is home to over sixty-four thousand homeless people, a number that has risen 13 percent in the past year. The city’s poor and homeless are marooned on the bleak side of a widening gap between the 99 percent and 1 percent, though still situated on the abundant edge of the widening divide between rich nations like the United States and poor ones like Mozambique.[11]

Cities, like animal bodies, require energy to live and grow. Worldwide, cities consume more than 66 percent of the total energy burned by humanity. Because they burn mostly fossil fuels, cities emit more than 70 percent of total anthropogenic greenhouse gases.[12] Cities, though, have the potential to be more efficient as they get bigger and denser. Like an elephant, for instance, which is ten thousand times larger than a guinea pig but needs only one thousand times its calories, New Yorkers per capita emit half the carbon dioxide that inhabitants of smaller, roomier Denver do.[13]

Cities, like stars, however, also burn faster and brighter the more massive they are. The entire population of New York City, for example—in total—emits at least six times more carbon dioxide than that of Denver.[14] All American cities with hinterlands combined are responsible for emitting 26 percent of the global total accumulating in the atmosphere through the industrializing era.[15] In fact, the effect of the whole array of forces pulsing through the worldwide network of cities has been toward escalating the fossil fuel energy consumed and greenhouse gases dissipated[16] as well as, at the same time, amplifying transformational demands on lands and waters near and far[17] to supply and militantly protect proliferating human desires.

An individual may isolate and feed a virtue—like reverence—within herself. If that virtue grows to overpower its complements—like faith, hope, and love—however, its victory defeats a full, reverent life. Likewise, a master narrative of disambiguated love focused only on mankind—that is, of a culture of Reasoned Philanthropia—whirls against the virtues of others in the world-of-life—ancient, buried phytoplankton that breathed carbon from the air and buried it below soil-forming mosses and a complement of oak trees and foxes, wolves and nightingales, large blue butterflies, cold-water corals, and dolphins. Because humanity is ecologically embedded within this world, humanity loving only itself—favoring its most meritorious—has been spinning its inventive power against love for itself, toward death by its own too much.

Largely because of habitat alterations and losses caused by humans building their cities, the current extinction rate—that of other life forms and of human cultures—is on a more steeply rising trajectory than in any other geological period. Globally, modern agriculture has resulted in soil loss outstripping soil-building fertility.[18] Primarily because of fossil-fuel burning, as the Royal Society’s summary of the science points out, the atmosphere contains more carbon dioxide—over 400 ppm—than it has in the past 800,000 years. This is causing oceans to acidify, further affecting relationships between species. The extra greenhouse gases are blanketing the Earth in rising warmth, causing melting ice, rising sea levels, fierce “weird” weather, and further stresses on living beings, including ourselves, who may or may not have the flexibility to adapt.[19]

As Bacon wrote—though without foreseeing what it would mean after men replaced God on creation’s throne—“The example of God teacheth the lesson truly; ‘He sendeth his rain, and maketh his Sun to shine, upon the just and unjust,’ but he doth not rain wealth, nor shine honour and virtues, upon men equally.” On October 29, 2012, Superstorm Sandy—a record-breaking, climate-change-intensified event—shut down New York City, killed hundreds of people, and cost the nation billions of dollars in infrastructure damages.[20] Then this: although the accumulated greenhouse gas contribution of Filipinos is negligible and their economy is shaky, in early November 2013, Supertyphoon Haiyan—one of the strongest storms ever recorded—slammed their islands. This storm killed thousands more people, members of Earth’s whole community being laid to waste by its revolution.

The Death of a Star

As an individual person in isolating a virtue is spun by too much of that virtue into herself and away from others; as a world of cities dominated by a cultural narrative reverencing solely its dominators is flooded by its “own too much”; so, too, as a burning star transforms into just one element, its dynamic turns out to be a terminal paradox. The star implodes, ending itself.

On the night of September 23, 1987, astronomical observers noticed a change in the sky—a bright light that had not been there before—a supernova, which scientists named SN 1987A. For more than 10 million years out there in a neighboring galaxy a massive star—far more massive than Earth’s Sun—had shimmered. It had been held together for all this time by the complementary play of the forces of nuclear fusion and gravity. It had continually contracted and expanded, cycling through the universe’s host of elements as it burned—hydrogen, helium, carbon and oxygen, sulfur and silicon, and finally iron. The star, now all of iron, became too heavy to expand, which gave the force of gravity full command. The star contracted, its matter plunging inward faster and faster until it deepened into a catastrophic collapse pulling into the limit of its core.

Generativity: The Surprise of Death, a World-of-Life

As the contracting star hit the limit of its core, a shockwave sent the star’s matter rebounding in an explosion that, with the help of neutrinos, blew it apart some 166,000 years ago, radiating as much heat as the combined total of all the galaxies of stars of the total visible universe and creating the light that finally reached human perception that September night of 1987. That supernova was so powerful that it re-generated in that flash at once all the different elements of the universe—from iron to gold, silver, silicon, oxygen, carbon, to helium, and hydrogen.

Out of such particular elements heaved into the darkness by the similar ending of another massive star a much longer time ago materialized countless other stars, including the infant Sun of the solar system with its eight planets, one of them Earth—the world-of-life.[21]

Loving the World-of-Life: A Thinking Community

“Then on a still night,” wrote twentieth century American ecologist Aldo Leopold (1887–1948), “when the campfire is low and the Pleiades have climbed over rimrocks, sit quietly and listen for a wolf to howl, and think hard of everything you have seen and tried to understand. Then you may hear it—a vast pulsing harmony—its score inscribed on a thousand hills, its notes the lives and deaths of plants and animals, its rhythms spanning the seconds and centuries.”[22]

The scientific process that Bacon urged in order to “enlarge the bounds of Human Empire” ironically has taught us that we are inescapably part of something bigger than ourselves. With the legacy of Charles Darwin’s work, humankind has learned, as Leopold understood, that we are “voyagers” in “a caravan of generations” alongside “other creatures in the odyssey of evolution.”[23] With ecological science, we have learned that we are members of an interdependent, self-renewing community of life.

Though death has always been part of the story, over time Earth has become more elaborate and diverse. Out of a new planet formed of stardust, life evolved by trial and error—changing the chemistry of the atmosphere, building soil, bringing forth increasing complexity of plants and animals in characteristic kinds and numbers, and self-organizing into communities in ways that tended not to allow any one member to dominate. In fact, animal feelings and empathy—the capacity to reflect the feelings of others—emerged as innovations furthering social bonds. This capacity added another layer of interdependency to Earth’s life by connecting beings emotionally within and between species—through reciprocal exchanges of anger, happiness, sadness, disgust, fear, and surprise—helping the greatest number to flourish.[24]

Human beings’ capacity to feel and empathize as well as to reason and reflect has also brought forth our species’ capacity for moral imagination. That is, we have an ability, perhaps unique in the vast universe, to evaluate the consequences of past actions against a standard of good that includes but extends beyond our individual selves in time and space, and then to adjust future actions accordingly.[25] Answering to that capacity is our quest for its meaning. Human beings also are story-telling animals with the ability to experiment with ideas, discover insight, and, by communicating these stories to others, explore meaning and learn how better to live together, if not flourish.

This integration of human reason with other sensibilities is the kind of “hard thinking” Leopold was practicing as he listened for a wolf howl on a still night, granting him from time to time a hearing of the cosmic music he described. This was the music of “land health”—the “capacity of Earth for self-renewal.”[26] Leopold tried putting this into words by telling story after complex story conveying to others the “prodigious drama” of the land’s workings full of all the ambiguity of a classic novel.[27] “Once you learn to read the land,” Leopold once told his students at the University of Wisconsin, “I have no fear of what you will do to it, or with it. And I know many pleasant things it will do to you.”[28] And who knows, he mused, perhaps “God himself likes to hear birds sing and see flowers grow.”[29]

“A deep chesty bawl echoes from rimrock to rimrock, rolls down the mountain, and fades into the far blackness of night,” Leopold wrote, and it meant different things to different listeners:

To the deer on the mountainside, hearing the wolf’s bawl reminded her of “the way of all flesh.”
To the pine tree, it was a forecast of “midnight scuffles and blood upon the snow.”
To the coyote, it meant the “promise of gleanings to come.”
To the cowman, it was the “threat of red ink at the bank.”
To the hunter, it aroused a “challenge of fang against bullet.”[30]

To the starlit mountain as a whole, the wolf’s bawl meant salvation from the destruction of any single element overpowering the rest of the interconnected community of fertile soils, pine trees, flowing waters, habitable atmosphere, deer and coyotes, cowmen and hunters, songbirds and scientists, authors, street musicians and students, professors, theologians and shamans, businessmen, city mayors, and every other kind of being living together wild and free, the future unknown.

To the human lover of land, the wolf’s howl meant “contempt for all the adversities of the world.” By this Leopold was not suggesting scorn for any individual in particular, but rather for a state opposed to good for all. In other words, the bawl sounded out resistance against the conditions of terminal paradox of “Human Empire” and a positive desire for the continuation of the “vast pulsing harmony” of Nature.

The moral position of the hard-thinking community that Leopold encouraged was one of wild liberty, in fact. This attitude, which he also called “thinking like a mountain,” might also be viewed, paradoxically, as the refusal to take a moral position in the sense that novelist-philosopher Simone de Beauvoir urged: “A freedom which is interested in denying freedom must be denied.”[31] Indeed, an ethic of wild liberty or land health, in other words, respects the world-of-life as an arena wherein a self-organizing welter of diverse interests, though often seemingly conflicting, are necessary to each member’s flourishing. The wolf needs the deer for food. The deer and the hunter also need the wolf to keep the deer population from getting so large that they browse all the pines, which hold the soils, which support the pines, deer, hunters and wolves. At the same time, each individual deer tries not to get eaten. Each wolf tries not to starve. Each is at liberty to succeed or fail, passing on helpful characteristics to future generations who accumulate this knowledge.

It was out of such living drama that human moral imagination emerged with the capacity to play out stories of such complex interrelationships—crafting communities—in our minds. The history of the novel, according to Kundera, is a “treasure chest” of human essence whose originality is inseparable from our belonging in the world-of-life. The art of the novel, mirroring this belonging, opens up experimental commons where a welter of perspectives has free play. Such art is a wild salvation from destruction by dogma overpowering a diversity of feelings and ideas. Its attitude is one of suspended judgment, preferring to encourage a multiplicity of inclinations toward creative self-assemblies, which is in tune with Earth and its cosmos.[32]

As the embedded wheels of humanity, ecological communities, and shimmering stars spin together, they power the heartbeat of a generative paradox. That is, in not possessing the complete truth each chemical element, each individual being, each constellation of beings in every unique place can continually participate with others in revealing Nature’s whole creative immensity. This unfolding wisdom might be called not merely Philanthropia, but true love.

Cities, then, can be likened to:

  • moons, reflecting humanity’s virtues and values—choosing life over money;
  • animal bodies, efficiently metabolizing energy—choosing clean not carbon;
  • stars, rapidly dissipating bright innovation—generating mutual health over unequal wealth; and,
  • living novels—discovering what we would not live without, which remains always out of reach.[33]

It was a dark and stormy night. The lights were out in lower Manhattan, Breezy Point, Far Rockaway, with the city soaking under seawater. A rumbling, four-toned siren echoed from sandstone to brick, tickled under the ribs of a woman walking quickly along the sidewalk, and faded into the far darkness of Wall Street, now sand-bagged. A homeless man had taken refuge in a subway station uptown before the shutdown. Somehow, he had managed to stay out of sight of the authorities with his baby carriage, which cradled a potted fern with brown, dried out leaves. The man frequently misted the dead plant with a water bottle as he leaned up against an iron post, puddles rising around his feet. He remembered once standing on the Bow Bridge, the moon shining full in a clear, star-spangled sky before dawn. A great egret lifted from the bank of Central Park Lake, drawing its feathery shadow across the grey water . . . [34]

Reverence Reborn: A Revolution of Grace

Grace—a gift from heaven; healing power, health-giving properties; thanksgiving; the part or aspect of something from which its beauty derives.

—Oxford English Dictionary

Grace, suggests ecological anthropologist Gregory Bateson, is a matter of integrating the diverse parts of the mind. For the attainment of grace, he says, just as the humanity of the city must be consonant with the creativity of Earth’s co-evolving community and that community with its cosmos—so, too, within each human being, “the reasons of the heart must be integrated with the reasons of reason.”[35]

I am fourteen years old. I head out to the porch where my father and I have our growing collection of birds’ nests and snake skins, plant specimens we both admire, and a monarch butterfly, whom we will soon release, just emerged from its pale green and gold-gilded chrysalis. We are also working on an experiment here together. First we planted bean seeds in paper cups of soil. Now that the plants have sprouted, we are placing half of them on an old stereo turntable each day to spin for a number of hours. Every week we compare the growth of the rotating plants with the growth of the controls. We discover that the whirling plants grow more slowly and, unexpectedly to us, bend in the direction of the turning wheel.

This was the kind of discovery—just one of so many set in a universe of ambiguity—that ultimately pushed back against the implosion of reverence, expanding it outward in a revolutionary welter of curiosity, faith, logical confusion, and intellectual rigor as well as anger, surprise, fear, hope, misunderstanding, security, wonder, and love—all the elements of a real human being who may, like a massive star, come round to explode, intermingle—in sympathy—and create!

Unprecedented Events of Irreversible Time

There are things done now that cannot be undone. The future has always been uncertain. Today’s future, however, is unprecedentedly so. Our species, along with many others, has never lived on a planet like today’s planet. It is a tempestuous globe in revolution against unbalanced energy flows—between sunlight and earthheat—and against the rise of one species, divided against itself, over the long, co-evolved multiplicity of others. Many lives have already been lost. No one can say how many more will be taken, or spared.

If for Dickens the French Revolution was the worst of times, the epoch we are in now is vastly more so, as it is also the age of the gravest foolishness, incredulity, darkness, and despair. This period, which may last for thousands of years, may also be the best of times—an age of wisdom, belief, light, and hope wherein we have everything before us. The possibilities of rising grace, expanding reverence, and encompassing love remain. Human beings can choose to mutually, skillfully, and creatively enrich the world-of-life to which we belong from here on, for as long as we shall live, as our stories unfold.

“I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising,” concludes Dickens’s hero in Tale of Two Cities, anticipating his death amidst a city in ruins. I see people whose children understand that which today has become unprecedentedly certain: A twenty-first century urban ethic—the path, that, in Frost’s words, will “make all the difference”—is the tangled one braiding its bended way out of mystery to stars, to Earth, to each one of us and all others—myriads of creatures, large and small, moving on together.

[1]. I. Prigogine, The End of Certainty (New York: Free Press, 1997); J. Gleick, Chaos: Making a New Science, rev. ed.(New York: Penguin Books, 2008).

[2]. Much of the frame for this essay is suggested by B. Swimme and M. Tucker, Journey of the Universe (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011).

[3]. “If a person makes reverence central . . . he will tend to be outwardly solemn, overly careful about details, restrictive, fearful, and narrow-minded.” See K. Ekken, The Philosophy of Qi: The Record of Great Doubts, transl. M.E. Tucker (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), at 139-40.

[4]. E.g., “God is love” in 1 John 4:8.

[5]. F. Bacon, The New Organon, Aphorisms, in Voices of the Earth: An Anthology of Ideas and Arguments, ed. J.J. Clarke (New York: George Braziller, 1994), at 85.

[6]. F. Bacon, “Of Goodness and Goodness of Nature,” in Francis Bacon: The Major Works, ed. B. Vickers (Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 2008), at 363-64; see also C. Merchant, “Dominion Over Nature,” in Worldviews, Religion, and the Environment, ed. R.C. Foltz (Toronto, ON, Canada: Cengage, 2003), at 39-49.

[7]. F. Bacon, New Atlantis, in Francis Bacon: The Major Works, ed. Vickers, at 488-89, note at 788; Wikisource, “Bushell, Thomas (1594–1674), DNB00,” in Dictionary of National Biography, 1885–1900, vol.8, ed. W.W. Wroth, http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Bushell,_Thomas_%28DNB00%29, accessed December 2013.

[8]. C. Merchant, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution (New York: HarperOne, 1989), at 29-41, 63-65; and regarding the consequences of the collaboration of capitalism, corporations, and mining, see S. Goldenberg, “Just 90 Companies Caused Two-Thirds of Manmade Global Warming Emissions,” Guardian, November 20, 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/nov/20/90-companies-man-made-global-warming-emissions-climate-change.

[9]. M. Fragkias et al., “Does Size Matter? Scaling of CO2 Emissions and U.S. Urban Areas,” PLoS One 8, no. 6 (2013): e64727.

[10]. E. Sanderson, “The Welikia Project,” http://welikia.org/m-about-this-block.php?bid=952&atb=0&fs=true, accessed December 2013.

[11]. S. White, “Not One Top Wall Street Executive Has Been Convicted of Charges Related to 2008 Crisis,” Huffington Post, September 13, 2013, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/13/wall-street-prosecution_n_3919792.html; J.M. Navarro, “Homeless Tally Taken in January Found 13% Rise in New York,” New York Times, November 21, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/22/nyregion/january-tally-of-homeless-population-found-13-jump-in-city-us-data-say.html; C. Hamilton, “Liu: NYC Income Gap Double National Average–Updated,” May 21, 2012, WNYC at http://www.wnyc.org/story/211128-liu-nyc-income-gap-double-national-average/; B. Milanovic, “Global Income Inequality by the Numbers: In History and Now—An Overview,” Policy Research Working Paper No. 6259, November 2012, http://elibrary.worldbank.org/content/workingpaper/10.1596/1813-9450-6259.

[12]. Fragkias et al., “Does Size Matter?”

[13]. This is related to the scaling that happens as sharing may increase energy and other networked efficiencies at higher versus lower population densities—for example, New York City has about twenty-seven thousand people per square mile and Denver about four thousand people per square mile. On scaling, see, for example, L. Bettencourt et al., “Growth, Innovation, Scaling, and the Pace of Life in Cities,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Science 104, no. 17 (2007): 7301-6; Santa Fe Institute, “Finding the Hidden Laws That Pervade Complex Biological and Social Phenomena,” http://www.santafe.edu/templeton/hidden-laws/, accessed November 2013. In 2012, New Yorkers per capita emissions were one-third of the U.S. average; see  City of New York, “Plan NYC: Inventory of New York City Greenhouse Gas Emissions,” ed. J. Dickinson et al., (New York: Mayor’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability, December 2012), http://nytelecom.vo.llnwd.net/o15/agencies/planyc2030/pdf/greenhousegas_2012.pdf. But comparisons of emissions at various densities may also be complicated by affluence, congestion, and types of industry that dominate from city to city, among many other things. See, for example, Fragkias, “Does Size Matter?” and D. Bloom, D. Canning, and Günther Fink, “Urbanization and the Wealth of Nations,” Science 319 (2008): 772-75.

[14]. For the idea of cities being like stars see, for example, L. Bettencourt, “The Origins of Scaling in Cities,” Science 340 (2013): 1438-41; for per capita figures see D. Hoornweg, L. Sugar, and C.L.T. Gómez, “Cities and Greenhouse Gas Emissions: Moving Forward,” Environment and Urbanization 23, no. 1 (2011): 207-227, at 207-214. If the average Denver resident emits 21.5 tCO2e and this is multiplied by a population of around 600,000 people, the total contribution of residents’ emissions is about 13 million tCO2e. The average New Yorker emits 10.5 tCO2e multiplied by a population of about 8 million people, which equals 84 million tCo2e. Population estimates from U.S. Department of Commerce, U.S. Census Bureau, 2012, https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/newyorkcitynewyork,US/PST040216. (City of New York, “Plan NYC,” shows total New York City emissions in 2011 at 53.4 million MgCo2e; A. Ramaswami et al., “Greenhouse Gas Inventory for the City and County of Denver,” May 2007, http://www.greenprintdenver.org/docs/Denver_GHG_Inventory_Report.pdf shows total Denver emissions in 2005 at 14.6 million mtCo2e. Comparing the two shows New York City not quite four times more emitting than Denver, but the general point remains the same.)

[15]. J. Hansen, “Figure 27,” 2007, http://www.columbia.edu/~mhs119/UpdatedFigures/; data sources are Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and British Petroleum.

[16]. S. Mufson, “Carbon Dioxide Emissions Rose 1.4% in 2012, IEA Report Says,” Washington Post, June 10, 2013, http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-06-10/business/39856466_1_carbon-dioxide-fatih-birol-greenhouse-gas-emissions. The amount emitted globally in 2012 was 31.6 gigatons, which set a record high. Though energy related emissions in the United States actually dropped—due partly to switches from coal to natural gas, the fracking of which presents critical land health problems—they increased elsewhere, particularly in China.

[17]. M. Lenzen and G.M. Peters. “How City Dwellers Affect Their Resource Hinterland,” Journal of Industrial Ecology 14 (2010): 73-90; K.C. Seto et al., “Urban Land Teleconnections and Sustainability,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 109, no. 20 (2012): 7687-92; K.C. Seto, B. Güneralp, and L.R. Hutyra, “Global Forecasts of Urban Expansion to 2030 and Direct Impacts on Biodiversity and Carbon Pools,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of AmericaAugust 16, 2012, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1211658109; N.B. Grimm et al., “Global Change and the Ecology of Cities,” Science 319 (2008): 756-60.

[18]. For a summary and sources see J. Warren, “Urgent: Dreams,” Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences 1, no. 3 (2011): 256-61, http://media.wix.com/ugd//3420dd_8dd38737de068921a90d5c89ae815158.pdf.

[19]. Royal Society, “Climate Change: A Summary of the Science,” September 30, 2010, http://royalsociety.org/uploadedFiles/Royal_Society_Content/policy/publications/2010/4294972962.pdf; and see B. McKibben, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2011).

[20]. J. Warren, “Connecting the Dots: Occupy Times Square, Re-occupy Our Imagination,” Minding Nature 6, no. 1 (2013), https://www.humansandnature.org/filebin/pdf/minding_nature/Jan2013_Connecting_the_Dots.pdf.

[21]. NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, “Supernovae,” 2011, http://imagine.gsfc.nasa.gov/docs/science/know_l2/supernovae.html; K. Davis, “Supernova 1987A,” American Association of Variable Star Observers, 2010, http://www.aavso.org/vsots_sn1987a.

[22]. A. Leopold, “Song of the Gavilan,” in Leopold, ed. Curt Meine (New York: Library of America, 2013), 131-35.

[23]. A. Leopold, “On a Monument to the Pigeon,” in Leopold, ed. Meine, 97-99. For more on Leopold’s relationship to Darwinian thinking see J.B. Callicott, Earth’s Insights (Berkley: University of California Press, 1997), chapter 9.

[24]. M. Bekoff, The Emotional Lives of Animals (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2007); see also S. Venkatesan et al., “The Anthropological Fixation with Reciprocity Leaves No Room for Love: 2009 Group for Debates in Anthropological Theory,” Critique of Anthropology 31 (2011): 210-50.

[25]. C. Darwin, The Descent of Man in From So Simple a Beginning: Four Great Books of Charles Darwin, ed. E.O. Wilson (New York: W.W. Norton, 2006), 797-838.

[26]. For an unfolding of the land health concept in Leopold’s mind and its meaning see J. Warren, Aldo Leopold’s Odyssey (Washington, DC: Island Press/Shearwater Books, 2006).

[27]. A. Leopold and S.E. Jones, “A Phenological Record for Sauk and Dane Counties, Wisconsin, 1935–1945),” Ecological Monographs 17 (1947): 81-122, at 83.

[28]. A. Leopold, “Wherefore Wildlife Ecology,” in Leopold, ed. Meine, at 523.

[29]. A. Leopold, “Some Fundamentals of Conservation in the Southwest,” in Leopold, ed. Meine, at 235-236.

[30]. A. Leopold, “Thinking Like a Mountain,” in Leopold, ed. Meine, 114-117.

[31]. S. Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity,in The Works of Simone de Beauvoir (U.S.A.: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, Zuubooks.com, 2011), at 122.

[32]. M. Kundera, The Art of the Novel (New York: Grove Press, 1988); M. Kundera, Testaments Betrayed: An Essay in Nine Parts, transl. L. Asher (New York: HarperCollins, 1995); see also S. Keene, Empathy and the Novel (Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 2010) for a look at how neuroscience informs understandings of how readers and authors relate to stories. Keene argues that while there is sparse evidence supporting the claim that reading or writing novels translates into “prosocial” behavior, novels do provide experimental places in which it is “safe” to try out feelings and thoughts, imagine their consequences, and evaluate them. Also of interest, Keene notes some evidence that discussing novels in groups may help foster more caring engagement with others.

[33]. J. Warren, “Becoming Cities: In Five Short Acts,” video presentation forthcoming, at https://www.humansandnature.org/how-is-nature-critical-to-a-21st-century-urban-ethic–question-8.php; see also J. Evans and P. Jones, “Rethinking Sustainable Urban Regeneration: Ambiguity, Creativity, and the Shared Territory,” Environment and Planning 40 (2008): 1416-34; H. Ernston et al., “Urban Transitions: On Urban Resilience and Human-Dominated Ecosystems,” AMBIO 39 (2010): 531-45; B. Hakim, “Generative Processes for Revitalizing Historic Towns or Heritage Districts,” Urban Design International 12 (2007): 87-99.

[34]. J. Warren, “Wherefore Environmental Studies in a 21st Century City,” 2013, https://www.humansandnature.org/urban-land-ethic—julianne-lutz-warren-response-69.php.

[35]. G. Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 128-29.

  • Julianne Lutz Warren

    Julianne Lutz Warren authored Aldo Leopold's Odyssey. Her other writings and activism also advance generativity—humanity's responsibility for others in the world-of-life.

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