Chapter 14 Human Capitalism

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Parachuting cats into Borneo -- Stopping the waste of people -- Curitiba's web of solutions -- Faster travel without freeways -- Subways on the surface -- Simple, fast, fun, and cheap -- When garbage isn't garbage -- No hunger pangs -- A place for living -- A symbol of the possible

What destination does our society want to reach, and how will it get there? Lessons in what not to do can often be found in cities, where most officials, overwhelmed by a flood of problems, try to cope by naming and solving them one at a time. If they are faced with congestion, their answer is to widen streets and build bypasses and parking garages. Crime? Lock up the offenders. Smog? Regulate emissions. Illiteracy? Toughen standards. Litter? Raise fines. Homelessness? Build shelters, and if that seems to fail, jail the loiterers. Insufficient budget to fund all these competing priorities? Raise taxes or impose sacrificial austerity, to taste. Disaffected voters? Blame political enemies.

Sometimes single-problem, single-solution approaches do work, but often, as previously described, optimizing one element in isolation pessimizes the entire system. Hidden connections that have not been recognized and turned to advantage will eventually tend to create disadvantage.

Consider what happened in Borneo in the 1950s. Many Dayak villagers had malaria, and the World Health Organization had a solution that was simple and direct. Spraying DDT seemed to work: Mosquitoes died, and malaria declined. But then an expanding web of side effects ("consequences you didn't think of," quips biologist Garrett Hardin, "the existence of which you will deny as long as possible") started to appear. The roofs of people's houses began to collapse, because the DDT had also killed tiny parasitic wasps that had previously controlled thatch-eating caterpillars. The colonial government issued sheet-metal replacement roofs, but people couldn't sleep when tropical rains turned the tin roofs into drums. Meanwhile, the DDT-poisoned bugs were being eaten by geckoes, which were eaten by cats. The DDT invisibly built up in the food chain and began to kill the cats. Without the cats, the rats multiplied. The World Health Organization, threatened by potential outbreaks of typhus and sylvatic plague, which it had itself created, was obliged to parachute fourteen thousand live cats into Borneo. Thus occurred Operation Cat Drop, one of the odder missions of the British Royal Air Force.

Too often, cities similarly find that the cause of their problems is prior solutions that have either missed their mark or boomeranged, like the bigger road that invites more traffic, the river channelization that worsens floods, the homeless shelter that spreads tuberculosis, and the prison that trains criminals in more sophisticated techniques. Rather, our goal should be to solve or avoid each problem in a way that also addresses many more simultaneously, without creating new ones. This system approach not only recognizes underlying causal linkages but sees places to turn challenges into opportunities. Communities and whole societies need to be managed with the same appreciation for integrative design as buildings, the same frugally simple engineering as lean factories, and the same entrepreneurial drive as great companies.

This wide focus can help people protect not only the natural capital they depend upon but also their social fabric, their own human capital. Just as ecosystems produce both monetized "natural resources" and far more valuable but unmonetized "ecosystem services," so social systems have a dual role. They provide not only the monetized "human resources" of educated minds and skilled hands but also the far more valuable but unmonetized "social system services", culture, wisdom, honor, love, and a whole range of values, attributes, and behaviors that define our humanity and make our lives worth living. Just as unsound ways of extracting wood fiber can destroy the ecological integrity of a forest until it can no longer regulate watersheds, atmosphere, climate, nutrient flows, and habitats, unsound methods of exploiting human resources can destroy the social integrity of a culture so it can no longer support the happiness and improvement of its members. Industrial capitalism can be said to be liquidating, without valuing, both natural and human capital capturing short-term economic gains in ways that destroy long-term human prospect and purpose. An overworked but undervalued workforce, outsourced parenting, the unremitting insecurity that threatens even the most valued knowledge workers with fear of layoffs, these all corrode community and undermine civil society.

Previous chapters have described how the worthier employment of natural resources can protect and enhance ecosystem services. Are there also worthier ways to employ people, so as to protect and enhance social-system services? Is there a social version of the principles of natural capitalism: of resource productivity, mimicking natural processes, the service and flow economy, and reinvestment in natural capital? Are there ways to restructure economic activity that reward social enrichment and that reinvest in social systems' capacity to evolve ever more diverse and creative cultures? Can reversing the waste of resources and of money also reinforce efforts to stop wasting people? How can ways of eliminating all these three kinds of waste reinforce one another? How, most challengingly, can we accomplish these goals in places where the population and its problems far outweigh available funding and time?

Basic human needs can be satisfied by a combination of products, forms of political and social organization, values and norms, spaces and contexts, behaviors and attitudes. Industrial capitalism rewards only the sale of monetized goods and services, so it naturally focuses on tangible, material ways to meet human needs. To be sure, material goods are useful, and up to a point indispensable, but only so far as they serve people, not the reverse: When physical production and economic growth turn from means into ends, they yield outward affluence accompanied by inner poverties expressed as social pathologies. The shopping mall is a pale substitute for the local pub, TV sitcoms for family conviviality, security guards for safe streets, insurance for health.

The health of societies depends not only on choosing the right means to satisfy human needs but also on understanding the interlinked pattern of those means. Traditional cultures, having more limited means to satisfy human needs, tend to meet as many needs as possible with as few resources as possible. In contrast, industrial capitalism emphasizes the creation of specialized products that fight for market niches to fill needs that, as often as not, cannot be satisfied by material goods. Successful societies require that each action they take answers many needs simultaneously. In effect they adopt the same design philosophy, and achieve the same elegant frugality, with which whole-system engineering meets technical demands by delivering multiple benefits from single expenditures, or lean thinking meets organizational needs by purging them of the muda of unneeded and counterproductive tasks. The context is different, but the logic, purpose, and result of this social form of whole-system design are similar.

In the developing countries of the South, such whole-system thinking is at a premium, because the new pattern of scarcity that is the cornerstone for the arguments of this book--abundant people but scarce nature--has arrived there early and with a vengeance. For the developing world, most acutely, the relevant question will be: How many problems can be simultaneously solved or avoided, how many needs can be met, by making the right initial choices? And how can those choices be linked into a web of mutually supporting solutions, creating a healthy economic, social, and ecological system that develops both better people and thriving nature?

Curitiba is a southeastern Brazilian city with the population of Houston or Philadelphia. It shares with hundreds of similar-sized cities a dangerous combination of scant resources plus explosive population growth. Curitiba's metro-area population grew from about 300,000 in 1950 to 2.1 million in 1990, when 42 percent of the population was under the age of 18. Another million residents are expected by 2020.

Most cities so challenged, in Brazil as throughout the South, have become centers of poverty, unemployment, squalor, disease, illiteracy, inequity, congestion, pollution, corruption, and despair. Yet by combining responsible government with vital entrepreneurship, Curitiba has achieved just the opposite. Though starting with the dismal economic profile typical of its region, in nearly three decades the city has achieved measurably better levels of education, health, human welfare, public safety, democratic participation, political integrity, environmental protection, and community spirit than its neighbors, and some would say than most cities in the United States. It has done so not by instituting a few economic megaprojects but by implementing hundreds of multipurpose, cheap, fast, simple, homegrown, people-centered initiatives harnessing market mechanisms, common sense, and local skills. It has flourished by treating all its citizens--most of all its children--not as its burden but as its most precious resource, creators of its future. It has succeeded not by central planning but by combining farsighted and pragmatic leadership with an integrated design process, strong public and business participation, and a widely shared public vision that transcends partisanship. The lessons of Curitiba's transformation hold promise and hope for all cities and all peoples throughout the world.

At 6:00 on a Friday evening in 1972, an hour after the law courts had closed, the renewal of Curitiba began. City workmen began jackhammering up the pavement of the central historic boulevard, the Rua Quinze de Novembro. Working round the clock, they laid cobblestones, installed streetlights and kiosks, and planted tens of thousands of flowers. Forty-eight hours later, their meticulously planned work was complete. Brazil's first pedestrian mall--one of the first in the world--was ready for business. By midday Monday, it was so thronged that the shopkeepers, who had threatened to sue because they feared lost traffic, were petitioning for its expansion. Some people started picking the flowers to take home, but city workers promptly replanted them, day after day, until the pillage stopped. The following weekend, when automobile-club members threatened to retake the street for cars, their caravan was repulsed by an army of children, painting watercolors on mall-length rolls of paper unfurled by city workers. The boulevard, now often called Rua das Flores, the Street of Flowers, quickly became the heart of a new kind of urban landscape. The children of those children now join in a commemorative paint-in every Saturday morning. The city is blessed with twenty downtown blocks of pedestrian streets that have regenerated its public realm and reenergized its commerce and its polity.

Of the many initiatives that changed the city's direction, the historic boulevard's bold resurrection, just before it was to have been destroyed for an overpass, was the most emblematic. At that time nearly every city in the world was demolishing its historic core so bigger roads could handle the onslaught of cars carrying people between districts zoned for disparate activities. But in 1971, when Brazil was still under military dictatorship, the governor of Paran State had chosen as mayor of its capital city a thirty-three-year-old architect, engineer, urban planner, and humanist named Jaime Lerner. Cheery, informal, energetic, intensely practical, with the brain of a technocrat and the soul of a poet, Lerner was selected not only for his knowledge of the city's needs but also for his supposed lack of political talent: The governor wanted someone politically nonthreatening. Unexpectedly, Lerner turned out to be a charismatic, compassionate, and visionary leader who ultimately ended his three terms, totaling a record twelve years, as the most popular mayor in Brazilian history.

His terms alternated with those of three other mayors because of Brazil's single-consecutive-term limit. Since then, Lerner has been twice elected governor of Paran. From that loftier position, he and the new mayor, his protege Cassio Taniguchi, are seeking to coordinate the state's and city's responses to migration, sewage, and other joint issues that neither can address alone. Now Lerner is spoken of as a plausible candidate for president of Brazil. He has also helped train, inspire, and propagate a generation of disciples whose influence extends far beyond Brazil.

The effectiveness, common sense, and political resonance of Lerner's policies, and their reliance on wide participation, were made possible by earlier and vibrant public debate to form a broad and durable political consensus. As a result, all six post-1971 mayors of Curitiba, though politically diverse--one was an outright opponent of Lerner's--have followed compatible policies, each respectfully advancing prior achievements while adding his own stamp. Five of the six were architects, engineers, or planners who treated the city and its political leadership as a design problem, continuously unfolding as the city's 1965 master plan shed its rigidities and evolved to meet changing needs. Those six mayors' twenty-eight years (and counting) of good management have generated a flow of interconnected, interactive, evolving solutions, mostly devised and implemented by partnerships among private firms, non-governmental organizations, municipal agencies, utilities, community groups, neighborhood associations, and individual citizens. Curitiba is not a top-down, mayor-dominated city; everyone respects the fact that, while it is served by leaders, many of the best ideas and most of their implementation come from its citizens. It encourages entrepreneurial solutions.

Lerner believed, as the late ecologist Rene Dubos put it, that "trend is not destiny." Rejecting the destruction of people-centered cities to rebuild them around cars, Lerner aimed to regain the vibrancy and diversity of the street life he'd enjoyed as a child, playing outside his Polish immigrant father's dry-goods store on the street of the main railway station. Having served previously as the president of the Curitiba Research and Urban Planning Institute (IPPUC), the nucleus of the city's innovative design ideas since the mid-1960s, he and his design colleagues saw Curitiba as a living laboratory to test their novel concept; but there was no time to lose. With its human population doubling each decade but with no new vision of urbanism, the city was rapidly developing clogged streets, bad air, and a dwindling sense of community. Lerner knew that to reverse these symptoms of excessive automobility, he had to move quickly and take risks. The revitalization of the Rua Quinze provided a symbolic focus for emerging attitudes about the purpose of both cities and their inhabitants. Residents and observers consider it a model worth emulating.

(End of excerpt)

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