Sick from Global Warming? So is this butterfly. The cure? Autopoiesis (the opposite of automobile…) Image © Val Druguet.

Chapter 8: What 'Nature' for the Capital of the World ?

A note to New Yorkers on the root causes of Global Warming and the future, happy ending to the industrial revolution.

Author's note: The following is an excerpt from part 1 of a two part lecture series given at the Graduate Center of The City University of New York. Part 2 in next month's nature journal.

1. The importance of paradigms

In case you were wondering how you might do your part in solving the current climate crisis, first consider exploring the real nature of the disease - not just the symptoms. Science says: more important than the answers is asking the right questions. We can start by perusing New York City (I.e.: the 'capital of the world') as the ultimate case study in human industrial ecology and its disastrous effects on the planet. We quickly see how Global warming is not just about 'limiting carbon emissions'. Global Warming represents the visible tip of an even greater and more complex and problematic, societal paradigm. It calls into question our very civilization, and how we organize ourselves and our communities, how we grow and distribute our food, what we qualify as growth and wealth. It challenges the very nature and philosophical premises of our expansionist economy. Indeed, species loss and climate change reveal more than SUV's and Bushonomics- they're a Rorschach test for the fundamental flaws and pathology of our own brainchild - the industrial revolution, and its capital, the city.



3. Natural premises

"The real voyage of discovery lies not in seeking new places but in seeing with new eyes." - Marcel Proust

Before moving to New York 4 yrs ago I lived and worked mostly in the rain and cloud forests of Venezuela, Peru and the Dominican Republic, as a tropical ecologist. For seven years there I studied many of the birds, insects, mammals, plants - and their relationship to people. Were they used for food ? Were they important references points in a people's culture, or knowledge system ? The forest was both my office and my home. My environment. A 'wilderness' of hundreds of thousands of species of plants and animals, including top of the food-chain predators. Including humans.

Then, in 2003, I was invited to New York, invited to study urban ecology for this non- profit environmental organization, NNYN. I thought my life would change, dramatically. It didn't.

I just switched jungles - from the primeval to the urban. Here in the City I do exactly what I used to do in South America - study plants, animals…and their connection to people. Ecology, the study of relationships.

Nature in New York ? It came as sort of a surprise to me, as well. To bump into coyotes in the Bronx, Peregrine falcons on Wall street, White-tailed deer in the heart of Queens, Harp Seals out sunning themselves (look like sausages) on pier 26 in Tribeca…To find wildflowers like yellow violet, Dutchman's breeches on the boulder-strewn slopes of Inwood Park. The one billion year old gneiss, the 500 000 year old Schist (yep, rocks are part of nature too!). I was truly amazed. I still am. I can gawk at the feathery elegance of snowy egrets alighting like snowflakes on their recently colonized urban turf -North and South Brother, Hoffman and Canarsie Pol - the secret islands of New York Harbor. I can ogle at the wintering snow geese in Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge - a stone's throw from JFK. I can take my students out there (and elsewhere), so they too can stare and wonder at 'big birds' the like of osprey that return each spring from the Amazon basin - to nest in the relic salt-marshes of primordial 'New York'.

Today, in the so-called 'Capital of the world', Val and I can count and film neotropical songbirds that we have known and studied in the Amazon and the Caribbean; we can watch them migrate every spring through Prospect park, Central Park, alighting on oak trees, feeding on local geometrid worms and others morsels of New York's own, homegrown biodiversity, before continuing north to the forests of New England and Canada. We can travel the earth with these birds, and feel all the more deeply connected and commited to them.

In New York we can also go fishing for 'fresh water' eels that were born thousands of miles away in the middle of the Atlantic and that 'come home to roost' in the upper reaches of the Hudson, using NY harbor as a transit hub in their life long voyage from salt water to fresh. From one world to the next.

Again, I had originally (for a second, at least) expected nothing more than a cliché - a few rats and a bundle of pigeons in an otherwise hyper-hygienic, anesthetized world - Disney land, without the parking. Or Boston. Instead, approximately 3000 documented plant species and an estimated 10 000 animal species within the contours of the 5 borough Apple. Some native, some foreign. Some elevated to sex symbol status (Pale Male), others threatening and reviled (Poison Ivy, Asian Longhorn, Garlic Mustard…). Most of them, ignored, or simply unknown.!

Ironic that New York would have such diversity, probably one of the highest for a metropolis its size. To know that within this glitzy, rumbling homage to technology and progress and cultural erection; within this global, galactic center of more than 9 million, one can (still) find such variety of wildlife - throbbing, foaming, so tantalizing and exciting, in color, shape, form, and behavior, will always tickle me. Nature in this city, everywhere in the city, is an earthquake to the brain. A time bomb ticking away in the western ego. It is provocative; it contradicts the unspoken idea of civilization. As far as reminders go (that we're ephemeral, lucky at best), NY's pervasive diversity of species, and abundance, their resilience within this shiny apex of so called human 'superiority' have a spooky flavor of audacity, and predatorial resolve. Of power, absolute; here the wild demonstrates the kind of aloof patience needed to hold out while one of nature's dominant figures, the species Homo sapiens, chokes itself to death. Nature bats last. Like a feline. One strike and we're out.

Of course, but this will not come as much of a surprise, I have also been dumfounded by New-Yorkers themselves. Notably, by a small microcosm of 'naturalists' in this 'City of specialists', who are uncannily aware of their biological surroundings. The birders, the butterfly-ers, the botany nerds. The stargazers. The eccentric, like Pete 'the reptile man' Warny. The elders, Don Riepe and Guy Tudor. The humble and wise - meet Mike Fellar, chief naturalist of NYC's Parks Department.

I have a particular soft spot for the City's thousands of anglers, who come from all over the world, speaking as many as 120 different languages and carrying with them as many cultures. They rim the city's shores - they look outwards towards the bay, the estuary, the harbor; inwards towards the lakes, ponds, remaining rivers and streams. Armed with rods, tackle, bait, nets, technique. People who know, regardless of their country of origin, how to fish in the Hudson, the estuary, and all of what they are catching. Hunter-gatherers, every single one of them !

I should know, I have lived with Hunter-gatherers in the Amazon. You won't find people more endowed with ecological literacy and a complete awareness of their surroundings. People who can read the weather, interpret the cycles of the moon, the tides, the pulsating and erratic mood swings of the ocean, the water, the devious stillness of a pond's surface.

So be it. The 'Nature of New York' is alive and kicking, teeming within the interstitial bubbles of biology that seem to defy the so called impervious cover of the grid. As if erupting from the womb of the earth (a rather respectable planet whom I usually honor and refer to as a 4,6 billion year old decidedly pregnant and productive sphere of rock to which, maybe, cities, after all, are just another litter of offspring themselves…).

4. Redefining nature, redefining ourselves

To know and to love and to study Nature in New York? Have I lost it? Most urbanites would readily admit (scream), that squirrels are aggressive and obsequious and raccoons wretched and full of rabies and that nature stinks. I've had students allergic to grass, literally. Others have never sat their 'sweet ass on a rock before'. Others still that claim that food can 'no way' be defined as nature (I guess children nowadays chew on plastic and metal and drink oil and, well, like the rest of us, produce just as much gas). 'Nature doesn't even belong here!'. I've heard them whine, again and again and again.

Some lessons in ecological
functionality: New York Butterflies!

Aphrodite Fritillary - can be seen in Brooklyn. Floyd Bennett Field.

Banded Hairstreak. Moves 'tails' to distract predators away from head - providing for quicker safer escapes. Van Cortlandt Park, Bronx.

Great-spangled Fritillary. Van Cortlandt Park, Bronx.

Question Mark. Migratory. Inwood Hill Park, Manhattan.

Red-spotted Purple. Fort Tilden, Queens.

Tiger swallowtail. First flight, emerging from chrysalis. Green Belt, Staten Island.

To all, I ask, I plead, I beg: "Think again!" Life is everywhere. It has been around for more than 4 billion years. It has embraced the entire planet. It has known many stages, flowered into modern-day rainforests, tropical savannas, coral reefs, arctic tundra, deep-sea vents. It reaches outwards, upwards, downwards; it can migrate thousands of miles to and fro, swap continents, stitch entire landmasses and oceans together. From within each and every living cell, life's sole project is to EXPAND, to head in all directions, squeezing itself through every nook and cranny, to every volcano's rim, exploding onto any plain… Will slam-dunk every cornice of every building (Confer Pale Male's now infamous 5th avenue palace of sticks)!

For sure, life reaches peak diversity at the equator (with millions of species per square inch of rainforest); but it can also survive as anaerobic bacteria 3 km beneath the earth's surface (a.k.a. SLIME!), or as microscopic springtails on the icy plains of Antarctica. Or as bedbugs in your sheets. Wild turkeys in Riverside Park. As millions of migratory shad that swim past Battery Park, in April, en route to spawn further up the Hudson river. As Monarch butterflies bouncing past your window, in the fall, thru Midtown (can be seen at top of Empire State Building), en route from Canada to Mexico. With all due respect, even you are part of nature.

When I pronounce the pleasantly oxymoronic "Nature of New York", I am naturally referring to the nature within. The birds and the bees (there are plenty of these, by the way - they have their hives on rooftops, radiate up to 3 miles a day in search of flowers to fertilize - and pollen to retrieve - in the constellation of parks and salting of window sills that pepper the Big Apple). I'm talking about the full bestiary, the multiple beasts, plants and micro-organisms that call New York City their home. Every living species known to have been documented in the Big Apple. But by 'nature' (from the Latin 'to be born'), I also refer to the nature of the relationship - or ecology- that connects a species to its environment, its natural household. I refer to the fact that any organism's presence here (including ours) is ultimately dictated as much by climate as it is determined by the lay of the land, the type of rocks, soil, nutrients and amount and type of water (salt or fresh ?) that constitute life's medium in and around the city. I refer of course to the entire life matrix of the city itself - to our ecology (from the Greek Oikos, meaning home, or household).

And by way of logic, I refer inevitably to the nature without. The Bigger picture. To all those life forms and citizens of the planet that sustain our city by simply producing our fresh air and water, or, in the case of other humans, those that provide us with resources and energy by mining or farming the earth on the opposite side of the globe. That fresh bundle of 'organic' raspberries at WholeFoods? Comes from Chile, from China. The oil in your gas tank? Please.

Get the Bigger Picture. Meet planet earth, to whom the city owes everything and on whom the city, ultimately, depends. Just how would one qualify and quantify New York's reliance on the rest of the planet? Let us review the nature of our umbilical cord.

Let's start with some simple examples: the migratory birds that fly through our city in May; the nutrients that flow through our Hudson's water; the people that come to this city from the across the world, from nations rich and poor, as if drawn to a magnet, as if the entire world was tributary to Gotham; the heat that flows though our gas stoves, the electrons and wave frequencies that enable our cable TV's and electrical wirings and cell phones; the photons of the sun that flow through our photosynthetic elm, oak and maple trees - henceforth to squirrel and hawk; through our estuary's diatoms - henceforth to zooplankton, to silverside, to black-crowned night heron…

All of this and much more comes to us, traverses us, keeps us afloat. The world is our lifeblood. Conversely, our dependencies on the world are infinite and absolute. Consider it this way: The planet itself is a giant food web, a food web fueled by matter and energy - and all of this 'essergy' we need as a species to survive comes from somewhere. And all of it is headed somewhere. And some of it, indeed, comes through New York. Be it for a second, a day, a week, or a lifetime. The moment it enters our city, our home, it's like a shot of oxygen-rich blood to the brain; if its an electron it turns on our lights, if it's a bird it might disperse our seeds, if it's a slice of bread it feeds us; as it flows though our city streets and the cracks in our pavement it keeps us alive. 'It' is the universe. Matter organized, reshuffled, folded into something scientists call "complexity".

New York City, it so happens, is just one of many earthly places, a place with its own specific 'ecology', its own galaxy of relationships to the world. Just one in a gazillion planetary life-nodes through which gush stampedes of organisms, blasts of particles, rivers of nutrients and molecules. All of it energy, with a capital E. The moment it arrives here, it enlivens - and illuminates - our city. It turns us on. 'It' gives us life. Thank you, sweet universe.

Finally, by the 'Nature of New York', I imply - sardonically- 'The Nature of the beast' itself. This city is like Gargantua on rBGH, a colossus of want. Ecologically speaking, a megamungously voracious, over-the-top, waste-producing black hole sucking in fuel and food at the supersonic speed of FedEx, UPS, diesel trucks and the information highway. The 'Jabba' of all Huts, defecating and exporting 50 000 tons of waste a day. Who pays?

Where do we get our grub ? Our water ? What is our city's 'trophic and entropic' relationship to the world? Its footprint? Its shadow? Its metabolic ties to the rest of our planet ?

Go to and calculate your own footprint. Multiply by 16 million. Here we include the tri-state, statistical metropolis, because NYC's suburbs cannot be considered separately - downtown and suburb are codependent, economically, politically, ecologically.

Our city has two metabolisms, two 'appetites' - one industrial, the other biological. It feeds off of fossil fuel, and requires more than 16 million of flesh and blood - that's you and me; obedient, functioning units of production and consumption. Human resources.

5. The problem (is one of perception)

Cities such as New York are themselves outgrowths of planet earth; they just so happen to be the technological constructs of a particularly clever species, itself a progeny of Life : Homo sapiens. Cities are not only part of nature, they are nature. They are not distinct from the environment. They are of the environment. Some might say, the environment. Wilderness ? Maybe not, but alive nonetheless, nested within the biosphere. Culture, as one philosopher once coined it, is man's contribution to the environment.

Perhaps the reason people are surprised to hear of 'wildlife' in the 'city', or of the 'city as nature' is that we ourselves are symptoms of our own culture, products of our belief system(s). Let me explain: generally speaking our societies are accustomed to thinking in binary terms of 'wilderness versus civilization', 'biology versus culture', 'man versus nature', 'city versus country', 'natural versus artificial'. Blame it on history, Descartes, Abrahamic religions, the enlightenment,capitalism, science, the Industrial revolution (of which New York is very much a product), the human brain….whatever. In our very patriarchal western world, mind is seen (albeit subconsciously) as superior to body, just as man is considered superior to nature -and to women. Both are limitless and must be 'labored', worked over in order to achieve real fertility, enlightenment, and one day maybe, heaven itself (for more of the same, read Carolyn Merchant's 'Reinventing Eden'). Similarly, technology is considered an improvement on life, machine as superior to organism, progress to cave art, work to play, etc. Hence the disconnect, the divide. The delusion. The pathology.

6. The solution - a question of vision

"The man at the back has a question. His tongue's involved with solutions" - Echo and The Bunnymen.

Today, quite fortunately, the science of ecology allows us to think in a new light. From a biological standpoint, cities are not distinct from nature, they are simply located at one, distal and relatively sterilizing end of the life continuum, with wilderness and species richness lying at the other, diametrically opposite end (even though the word wilderness as 'area devoid of human impact' is itself in dispute, since modern humans have by now impacted, polluted, transformed in one way or another almost every square mile of planetary real-estate in the past 100 000 years of our history). A few examples of our 'dominion': the atmosphere has been 'heated' ever since the invention and widespread use of fire in prehistoric times. Cities, industrial society, modern day Global Warming are but the apex of that same, combustive trend. Toxic particulates have by now smeared the entire planetary surface and atmosphere, they have spread helter-skelter, shotgun-style, via the weather, transported by atmospheric and oceanic currents, the water cycle, or migratory animals. And even way out yonder, in the center of the oceans, plankton have been found with micro-particles of plastic nestled within their gut. If nature is everywhere, so are humans. Now more than ever perhaps, the boundaries been 'man' and 'nature' have been blurred.

What remains is a difference of functionality. Ecologists today see the world in terms of functional versus dysfunctional systems. True growth versus pseudo-growth, self-sustainability versus self-destruction. Explanation: pristine, living ecosystems such as forests, salt marshes, meadows, streams are functional in the sense that they are self-organizing, self-sustaining, growing communities of animal and plants species, animated by constant energy flows and nutrient cycles, held together (just like the cells of your body) by a hyper-complex web of processes that engage molecules, atoms - matter and energy. They are known as self-creating, or autopoietic, systems. They are extremely dynamic. They are autonomous and self-referential. Of course, these systems interact with their environment (by using solar energy, exchanging gases and molecules with the atmosphere, recycling nutrients), yet to all intents and purposes they maintain their autonomy, their structure. A self-organizing system 'knows' what it needs to import and export in order to maintain itself, renew itself, grow, change and ultimately, evolve. Accordingly, ecosystems, when 'left alone', grow from within, endogenously. They shape themselves outwards.

So does life as a whole. The biosphere as we know it. Some ecologists have even theorized that the planet itself constitutes a single, autopoietic, meta-organism. A living system, in and of itself, held together by the 'web' of life. This is known as the Gaia hypothesis.

One very important thing to remember is that within functional, self-organizing ecosystems each component participates in the production of other components. Every organism's waste in another's food. One's death is another's birth. All is recycled. The system as a whole cannot 'pollute'. Because everything in the system is about renewal, about resource (from the Latin resurgere, 'to rise again'), about self repair, and self-healing. In sum, an autopoietic system is both the producer and the product. Independent, yet open to interaction with the universe at large. Open to change and evolution. When we talk about ecological stability, we talk about the intrinsic ability of ecosystems (and that of their constituent species) to adapt and respond. Hence an ecosystem's primordial functionality, resilience, health and, in the words of Ecologist and physicist Vandana Shiva, its 'biological freedom'.

No such luck for cities. In their current industrial form, cities are allopoietic (as are their immediate corollaries: suburbs, industrial agriculture and the expansionist economy as a whole). They are inherently dysfunctional. Self destructive. In their current state, they cannot self-organize, self-sustain, self-repair, recycle - nor do they have the capacity to grow endogenously. We have to do it for them. Like machines, and the high entropy design of the industrial revolution that spawned them, cities refer to functions determined and given from outside, such as the production of a given output. In the case of New York City, output can mean economic capital. It can also mean wealth's collateral: the exhaust from the combustion of resources that produced the capital in the first place, i.e.: all the non-recyclable waste, the ozone pollution, the excess CO2, the nitrous oxide, the particulates …all the ingredients for cancer and global warming.

Accordingly, like all mechanical systems, cities cannot grow from within. Nor can they evolve, miraculously, by themselves, overnight, to be 'functional', or 'good'. They are made, put together from the outside, with hammer and nail, organized and sustained by us - their master and slave(the 'allo' in allopoietic). Cities are high maintenance. They depend on us and the world for everything. They require phenomenal amounts of repair, attention, peoplepower, matter (food and materials), water and energy. They divert huge amounts of natural resources, they take from the hinterland, they are literally and quite physically sucking the global autopoietic system dry…

Biodiversity loss and ecosystem depletion? The expansionist economy and its main fuse - the city.

All man-made, carbon-based, combustive machines as we know them are intrinsically ecocidal. Therein lies the fundamental flaw of the industrial evolution. Modern cities are just colossal machines made up of smaller ones. Therein lies the flaw of the contemporary city. Technically and ecologically speaking, they are parasites, bloated ticks clinging to the planet's crust, sucking up sustenance and returning none. Pull the plug and they die.

(And in the event that we do run out of oil, best we get those wind turbines and solar panels up and running presto!)

In sum, when you hear of global warming, loss of biodiversity, pollution, etc. what you're really hearing is that our society as a whole is chewing up the biosphere from within. Devouring it inside out. 'Consumerism consumes all', Lacan liked to muse. Nihilism, incarnate? More like 'Autophagy', the art of eating oneself - and succeeding. Feeling queasy?

Blame it on the steam engine and Thomas Newcomen.

The bottom line, the final diagnosis, is that WE ARE DYSFUNCTIONAL. Our industrial ecology, per se, is pathogenic. Global warming, a surface symptom. We must treat the root cause. If Jane Jacobs was right in saying that Cities are the obligatory economic engines - or 'CentComs' - of that lifestyle, then New York City (as Capital of the world) has had a huge responsibility in helping to screw up the planet.

The silver lining? Should New York change its inner 'nature', and mature, it could help (very rapidly help) to shape a cleaner, healthier, i.e.: a more functional, autopoietic, self-sustaining world.

Ecology, the art of growing up. How to?

Cities can and must play their part.

Let's rewind, one last time: an autopoietic, self-organizing, living ecosystem (such as a salt-marsh) is a structurally and functionally diverse 'organic' entity, whereas the mechanical city, the giant machine, the 'ecosystem of fire', is a structurally and functionally boring, uniform, monolithic system that thrives on combustion, throwaway mechanics and whose primary end product (apart from pleasure, which can't be banked other than in the shape of memories) is a stinking wad of non-biodegradable toxic rubbish. And, whereas self-organizing systems have the potential to heal themselves and adapt to change, mechanically organized systems (such as cities) cannot. In the words of Vandana Shiva, "They break down."

Global Warming ? Global collapse.

It follows that biodiesel won't change a thing, long term. It will only perpetrate the system, the process, the consequences. To treat Climate Change by reducing emissions is about as smart and efficient as plugging a Salmonella victim's sphincter with a cork and expecting to cure his/her diarrhea. I'm not being particularly scatological here: Global Warming and its related symptoms are the exhaust fumes, the all-degrading cutting-of-the-cheese of an intrinsically flatulent lifestyle. In the corporate, industrial world, externality is just a euphemism for 'silent but deadly'. We must change our technology's diet. Feed it with renewable energy. Adopt the 'Zero emissions' paradigm…

(Come to think of it, my friend Sigmund might have coined neoliberalism the most anally retentive form of misconduct known to man. Hoard, then spew).

On a more optimistic note, understand that New York City - like all cities- can achieve 'cradle to cradle' sustainability if it chooses to re-enter the food-chain, by immersing itself and surrounding suburbs and agricultural hinterland in autopoiesis; i.e.: by using solar and wind energy and little more, growing its own food (nearby), recycling all of its water and composting every cubic inch of its own organic waste. Our motto should no longer be 'a rising tide lifts all boats' (rather crude in a post Katrina world), but rather: Waste equals Food.

Thanks to a few forward-thinking New Yorkers, thanks to the fact that cities as bustling and creative and energetic as New York are intrinsically transformative and are thus a locus for foment, programs and projects and solutions abound that point in the ecological direction of autopoiesis and functionality: greenroofs, anaerobic digestion, recycling of all plastic and petrochemicals within a service and flow 'economy of scope', improved waste and water management, a renewed ground swell of programs that seek to reeducate ourselves and more importantly our kids.

Btw, thanks to mainstream media for never taking the time to explain all this. Either it doesn't fit in a sound bite or it doesn't fit their agenda.

The best news is that contrary to common belief new technologies need not be invented. They already exist. In the words of physicist and ecologist Fritjof Capra " we can [..] model communities after nature's ecosystems, which are sustainable communities of plants animals and micro-organisms. Since the outstanding characteristic of the biosphere is its inherent ability to sustain life, a sustainable human community must be designed in such a manner that's its technologies and social institutions honor, support and cooperate with nature's inherent ability to sustain life.'

Can technology 'save' our city ? Sure, biotechnology, life's intrinsic 'chutzpah' if you will. All we have to do is experience nature and learn from her 'wisdom'. Promote 'Ecological design'. If you are one such person, someone as interested as I am in learning from nature's wisdom, and applying such earth wisdom to our society and city, thereby leaving our place and world a sustainable one for our children, then let the 'Nature of New York' be your guide, your open book of ecological knowledge.

If you think you are totally, beyond-the-point-of-no-return, ecologically illiterate, do not despair: go to the wildflower meadow in northern Central Park and watch migrating monarch butterflies pollinating local goldenrod and aster. Discover win-win ecology, partnership and collaboration, pollination, mutualism, emergent properties and the non-zero sumness of our very first economy - the ecology of life on earth.

And see you next week, for step two on our way to understanding -and solving- the biggest challenge yet to face mankind.

Biological freedom, just around the corner.

Until then,
Dave Rosane and Val Druguet
Chief Naturalists

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