The following is an excerpt from a March 2012 interview in which Pliny Fisk shared his thinking about critical issues influencing the Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems. In Haiti, the Center’s work incorporates the country’s cultual tradition of wild color in village prototype kits used to create personalized, flexible housing—solutions growing out of the island’s culture and ecology instead of the most recent disaster. At the other end of the spectrum, the Center’s research includes a rapidly-curing, high-strength cement using brine instead of fresh water—a game-changing approach that creates a building material out of a waste product instead of continuing to use a limited resource. These examples illustrate the results of deep, innovative thinking and action.

Pliny Fisk III:

I love your title “Global More = Global Less.” It succinctly represents the dilemma we are in. There are two ways I think about this.

In population dynamics and communication science, they say that at the current rate of technological advancement in communication and population growth, all people will have the capability to globally communicate with each other when we peak at a certain threshold—a world population of approximately 17 billion people. Those focusing on technology and population (Von Foerster, Wolfram) follow in the footsteps of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in his conception of what he called the noosphere—a kind of global brain. They believe there’s hope that when we reach the communication technology/ population inflexion threshold, empathy between all people and life will occur, and the usual hurdles of misunderstanding will be conquered. An analogy has been made regarding bird, insect and fish swarms, and the possibility of massive group change has already been recorded (Steve Johnson, Howard Rheingold), especially in political processes where sweeping change over tens of thousands of people has taken place within days due to spontaneous text messaging and other means. This suggests that a person going through a natural disaster or war will begin to affect everyone – ecological issues and major collapse conditions could affect all minds – and if humanly possible, the plight and destruction would not be repeated.

However, ecologists believe the earth’s in big trouble when we reach a population of 9.5 billion people—well before the communication/population threshold of 17 billion.

The problem is the gap between a population of 17 billion, when we are all communicating with each other, and an ecological collapse at 9.5 billion. The ultimate challenge is to close this difference through massive understanding before it’s too late. We must enable a gigantic shift in thinking before we hit 9.5 billion.

A second way of thinking about these issues is what I call the biophilia dilemma: the primitive brain versus the neocortex brain. Those within the biophilia movement are dealing primarily with the primitive brain, not the neocortex, the modern brain filled with commotion. My conclusion is that the neocortex loves change, feedback, activity, loves to connect patterns every millisecond. The primitive brain is slow, seasonal, yearly, with long feedback cycles. The neocortex wants immediate gratification. The current domination of the neocortex is a global disease, a virus that is now affecting nature herself. We have to play the brain game in addressing ecological issues.

Let’s interpret what’s going on in the sustainability movement. Not only are we being good nature/resource stewards, but perhaps more importantly, we are responding to what the brain wants: a use of resources which more and more represents an accelerated use of slow, earthly processes that cannot keep pace with our rate of consumption. But oddly enough, we seem to be responding in a neocortex manner, as we’re placing entire life cycles into buildings, thus speeding our brain activity to monitor and manage those resources and their rate of replenishment in these faster paced life cycles. The whole water cycle source catchment, processing and cleaning, use and reuse–we’re just shortening a very large natural cycle, and we’re doing the same thing with air, energy and food. If this is true, we’re seeing the primitive brain’s desire to replicate slow moving, natural systems but sped-up to satisfy the neocortex. It would seem that our perception of what we are doing and where we are going requires much greater understanding of our brain as a mechanism that could offer a massive change in our understanding of resources.

I have some psychologist friends who say that as the spatial environments we are in become smaller, time speeds up in our brains, and it slows down when we’re in large spaces. Another way of looking at this is that cell phones, iPads, and small screens make big spaces small. The brain has a time-space component different from physics.

Barbara Swift:

So, the larger the space, the more the brain slows time. It allows your primitive brain to be heard over the noise of the neocortex? You might be able to align the two—the neocortex and the primitive brain.

Pliny Fisk III:

Yes, the larger the space, the more the brain slows time. You make decisions at a much different pace. Remember, humans evolved in large-scale environments, and now our conditions have changed—we’re no longer in the wild, working closely with cycles of nature. Instead, we are creating a mimicry of natural cycles in order to bring them in sync with the modern brain. 

We can start working with the cycles of life and use them to tickle the neocortex. Considered as an evolutionary phenomenon, this could be more important than taking a purely conservational approach or even the good steward angle. We need to work with what the brain craves within the context of planetary well-being.