We continue our fascinating conversation with polymath Eric Hunting (for the first part, see here).
Based on that prior question, I formulated my third question thusly:
First of all, I’m not sure I understand the distinction you make between property and propriety? Perhaps you could elaborate. Second, do you have any ideas about a possible integration of what you call the soft-tech (if not anti-tech) sensibility of the ecovillage movement, and the more pro-high tech approaches, such as you mention, and I have also seen at work in the Viridian movement of Bruce Sterling and the people behind worldchanging.org.
Eric send me a long reply, here’s the first part that continues to dwell on the pre-industrial past first, starting with distinguishing between fixed property and the more fluid forms of propriety that existed and permitted a more organic architecture.
“Property is a function of propriety. There are no unalienable human rights in nature. There are only the principles of physics, biology, and instinctual animal behavior. So the right to property is a social convention that exists only so far as that society is willing to recognize and defend it by force where necessary. It is a form of propriety in the same manner as the exclusivity of a sexual relationship or notions of religious taboo. Thus property does not exist outside the context of community -as the many refugees we have created today have learned in tragic fashion. We have today bureaucratized the disposition of property rights to such an extreme that people often pretend these rights are laws of nature -until they personally confront the casual disregard for these rights by government authorities and discover how limited their options for recourse really are. In early societies property rights were much more fluid, much more negotiable, because social equity was critical to community stability. The extremes of social and economic inequity common in todays bureaucratic macro-communities could not exist in the small communities of the past because there were no mechanisms to shield individuals from the social repercussions of greed and nothing to stop the majority from simply taking property from individuals by force where needs demanded and those individuals resisted their ultimate responsibility to the society.
As I suggested, this earlier fluidity of property rights is reflected in the very organic architecture of ancient and contemporary primary culture communities. Today the disposition of real estate is based on a bureaucratic virtualization of the landscape -the imposition of quadratic (and earlier ad hoc free-form divisions keyed to natural landmarks) grids on the national territory which allow a nation-state to parcel-off land as a commodity and distribute it in various ways. But in the past the physical territory of a community was defined by the scale of the population and the productivity of group labor. There was no virtual grid on this territory and no fixed boundaries or locations of homes. Territory was defined by the actual use of space. Villages would tend to be defined in general structure by central public activity spaces -plazas, atriums, etc.- and perimeter enclosures (intended primarily as defense against wild animal intrusions) with dwellings tending to be organized in rings along this enclosure and surrounding in turn the central communal open space. Where a person’s home would be within the village and how much space it could have was determined by group consensus and limited by the precedent of earlier homes and the community’s available labor pool. You could negotiate for as much space as the labor pool at any time could afford -since the individual contribution of labor per person would be roughly the same per new home added. But precedent in size of previous homes and the free area left in an outer enclosure limited how far you could push that, because existing residents would want just as much space to be fair and maintaining equity with increases in size could mean reconstruction of much of a village. The less freely adaptive the construction method the more vernacular traditions on size and design of dwellings tended to be worked out across a generational perspective -what one’s needs were most-likely to be across the human life-cycle in respect to marriage, procreation, and so on. The creation or reconfiguration of homes in a village was typically associated with marriage and the expectation of children that would produce.
Type of building technology could also influence the nature of this P2P negotiation, the nature of communal labor, and ultimately notions of property and propriety. The two oldest forms of construction -both going back at least 10,000 years in the archeological record- were masonry construction (adobe, cob, earth block, rubble, piled stone, cut stone) based on earthen materials and pavilion or pole structures based largely on organic materials. Both technologies were largely ubiquitous but the former (often in hybrid forms) dominated in the northern hemisphere, the latter in the southern hemisphere owing to the differences in predominate climate and materials resources. This, of course, is why the archeological record is far more robust in the northern hemisphere. Masonry structures tended to be very resilient and thus very permanent and they are extremely labor intensive to build. The labor intensiveness favored architecture with shared walls as this saved some labor in expansion -and in many of the climates where this was used would also help conserve thermal energy. So contiguous structure was common. They also tended to favor contiguous monolithic wall structures as a means of limiting insect/animal intrusion and potentially as defense against human attackers or a means of limiting their routes of intrusion during fighting. Such heavy structures took longer to build, were more labor intensive to modify, and tended to be easier to expand than to demolish and rebuild and so tended to favor incremental expansion over whole adaptation. They also offered very high degrees of personal privacy by providing good visual and sound barriers. Thus communities evolved at much slower, generational, paces and P2P negotiation over community construction was more protracted and eventually formalized. This may partly account for the cultures of the northern hemisphere having much more rigid concepts of property and propriety. Structural permanence leads to notions of long term investment and ultimately multigenerational legacy, which in turn lead to concepts of regional or ‘national’ identity. People in the northern hemisphere venerate ancestors for what they leave behind. People in the southern hemisphere tend to venerate ancestors for what they are theoretically still doing in the present day -in that back-stage other world where mysterious ancestral spiritual engineers pull the strings and press the levers of phenomenon in our world we don’t understand the causality of.
Pavilion architecture was not as resilient as masonry owing to the nature of organic materials. Buildings would have to be renovated or completely replaced every few years to a few decades. Height was the general strategy for the control of animal intrusion and flooding was also a common problem, and so use of hanging fixtures like baskets and hammocks and raised floor systems were the norm. The predominate climate worked against the use of permanent walls and temporary walls any more robust then woven reeds and textiles while masonry construction, due to a scarcity of materials and the effects of water, tended to be based on piled or cut stone and restricted to perimeter enclosures and terracing. This kind of architecture presents a situation where there is far more rapid evolution of a community’s architecture, far more frequent P2P negotiation over communal construction, and far less physical individual privacy. Individual pavilion structures tended to increase in scale with population but just one such structure generally formed the basis of housing for an entire extended family -if not the whole community at the start. Collective personal property tended to be limited to what one person might carry, notions of property were much more fluid, there were far stronger and more personal social systems of propriety to insure community cohesion (taboo systems, honor systems, ohana), and notions of cultural identity were more associated with intellectual property -songs, dances, body art, craft technique- than architecture and regional territory. The architecture of the southern hemisphere may have typically been less resilient than those of the northern hemisphere but their cultures were often more so. Australian aborigines may have the most materially light cultures of all existing people -they didn’t even develop any form of permanent architecture- and held that system together largely unchanged for at least 40,000 years.”