Entropy and the City | Proposal for a metabolic approach to the systems we live in

Images Source: At This Rate by Giles Revell and Matt Willey

In the era of bio-fuels, the surge of climate change prophets, of hybrid cars and everything sustainable, it may be worthy to take pause to understand the real influence our presence has on the biosphere. Looking at Earth’s history in cycles or epochs, we can see the contingency of our presence on the planet. It is too presumptuous to believe that the single aim of materials and energy is to sustain our existence. Humanity and its achievements are nothing more than one element in the current cycle of Earth’s history. Seeing it at this scale, we can perceive ourselves as organisms spontaneously organizing and interacting in a network of systems [cities] that require inputs for their perpetuation. These systems created by us, in turn, interact with the biosphere, influencing far beyond their own physical limits.

The growth of these systems will not continue by simply optimising the use of resources or by improving technology. Their boundary is defined by the law of entropy, which describes the degradation of matter and energy in the universe. Using this thermodynamic approach to understand cities may allow us to reconsider our patterns of growth; aware that our presence on Earth is just part of a cycle, having a beginning and, eventually, an end.

It would then be desirable that our presence in this current cycle acts in harmony with the whole system. If instead of singularly pursing technological efficiency in the hope of maintaining our current levels of energy and matter consumption [call it growth or sustainable development] – creating more greener and better products for everyone, but also generating more greener and better waste – we propose to understand and encourage other connections between body [people] and systems [cities] based on the exchange of relational goods, the support of network labour and property, and the creation of open-source systems that permit transferable ownership and adaptability to specific situations where they operate.

We claim for a change from mechanic to thermodynamic perception of our cities, the way we inhabitat the planet and our lives in general. Through this metabolic approach we may be able to stop demanding products while seeing degrowth as something desirable. This may provoke that some current assumptions should be revised:

* The value given to money may disappear together with the bank system. Prevailing local currencies and relational exchange of goods [e.g.time and service banks]
* Stop the sprawl of cities promoting densification [not gentrification] of existing down-towns.
* Revise technical professions to accomplish with previous ideas. Using open source academic model to learn how to de-construct or restore existing infrastructure to adapt it to this new scenario.

This metabolic understanding of our cities may convert our transition through Earth’s cycles in a seed for new systems that we can’t begin to imagine. These emergent systems would mutate, nurtured by the DNA that we leave as organic detritus, inert and active wastes in the nooks and crevices of our current cities.

This post was originally published at 32BNY on their issue Entropy on June 2010.
Related reading:
– UrbanTick. Sustainability and Social Context
– La Ciudad Viva. Arquitectura y Termodinámica o el arte de decrecer [Spanish]

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