Utopian Imperative in the Age of Catastrophe

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Essay: Who Will Build the Ark? The Utopian Imperative in an Age of Catastrophe by Mike Davis in Telepolis

URL = http://brechtforum.org/who-will-build-ark-utopian-imperative-age-catastrophe?bc=


This is one of the most riveting and interesting essays I have read in a long while. I strongly recommend it as a indispensable must-read.

This essay by Mike Davis has two parts.

In the first, Pessimism of the Intellect, he reviews the evidence for climate change, as well as attempts to change the situation and finds that most worst-case scenarios imagined by the scientists have already been exceeded, which means that we may have already reached the tipping point which makes dislocation inevitable. Because the solution would demand an enlightened reaction by the privileged, it is highly unlikely that the necessary changes will take place. In fact, there is evidence that the elites are already preparing lifeboat scenarios for their entrenched survival amidst global chaos.

In the second part, the author switches to the Optimism of the Imagination and finds an unlikely possibility: the greening and democratic reform of city life. He outlines both the negative and positive aspects of cities from an environmental point of view.

Here are the positive ones:

urban growth preserves open space and vital natural systems

well-defined boundaries between city and preserved countryside;

waste is recycled, not exported downstream

strict regulation of automobile use

environmental economies of scale in transportation and residential construction;

the substitution of public luxury for privatized consumption;

the socialization of desire and identity within public space;

affordable access to city centers from periphery

egalitarian public services

large domains of public or non-profit housing

ethnic and income heterogeneity at fractal scales of city

powerful capacities for progressive taxation and planning in the public interest

high levels of political mobilization and civic participation

public landscapes designed with children, seniors and special needs in mind

rich dialectics of neighborhood and world culture;

the priority of civic memory over proprietary icon;

spatial integration of work, recreation and home-life." (http://brechtforum.org/who-will-build-ark-utopian-imperative-age-catastrophe?bc=)


Mike Davis:


"Such sharp demarcations between 'good' and 'bad' features of city life are redolent of famous attempts in the previous century to distill a canonical urbanism or anti-urbanism: Lewis Mumford and Jane Jacobs, Frank Lloyd Wright and Walt Disney, Corbusier and the CIAM manifesto, the 'New Urbanism' of Andres Duany and Peter Calthorpe, and so on. But no one needs 'urban theorists' to have eloquent opinions about virtues and vices of the urban built environments and the kinds of social interactions they foster or discourage. Especially here in Munich, with a rich conjugation of different periods and conditions.

What often goes unnoticed in such moral inventories, however, is the consistent affinity between social and environment justice, between the communal ethos and a greener urbanism. Their mutual attraction is magnetic if not inevitable. The conservation of urban green spaces and waterscapes, for example, serves simultaneously to preserve vital natural elements of urban metabolism while providing leisure and cultural resources for the popular classes. Reducing suburban gridlock with better planning and more public transit turns traffic sewers back into neighborhood streets while reducing greenhouse emissions.

There are innumerable examples and they all point toward to a single unifying principle: namely, that the cornerstone of the low-carbon city, far more than any particular green design or technology, is the priority given to public affluence over private wealth. As we all know, several additional Earths would be required to allow all of humanity to live in a suburban house with two cars and a lawn, and this obvious constraint is sometimes evoked to justify the impossibility of reconciling finite resources with rising standards of living. Most contemporary cities, in rich countries or poor, repress the potential environmental efficiencies inherent in human settlement density. The ecological genius of the city remains a vast, largely hidden power.

But there is no planetary shortage of 'carrying capacity' if we are willing to make democratic public space, rather than modular, private consumption, the engine of sustainable equality. Public affluence - represented by great urban parks, free museums, libraries, and infinite possibilities for human interaction - represents an alternative route to a rich standard of life based on earth-friendly, carnivalesque sociality. Although seldom noticed by academic urban theorists, university campuses are often little quasi-socialist paradises around rich public spaces for learning, research, performance, and human reproduction.

The utopian ecological critique of the modern city was pioneered by socialists and anarchists, beginning with Guild Socialism's dream (influenced by the bioregionalist ideas of Kropotkin, and later, Geddes) of garden cities for re-artisanized English workers, and ending with the bombardment of the Karl-Marx-Hauf - Red Vienna's great experiment in communal living - during the Austrian Civil War in 1934. In between are the invention of the kibbutz by Russian and Polish socialist, the modernist social housing projects of the Bauhaus, and the extraordinary debate over urbanism conducted in the Soviet Union during the 1920s.

This radical urban imagination was a victim of the tragedies of the 1930s and 1940s. Stalinism, on one hand, veered toward a monumentalism in architecture and art, inhumane in scale and texture, that was little different from the Wagnerian hyperboles of Albert Speer in the Third Reich. Postwar Social Democracy, on the other hand, abandoned alternative urbanism for a Keynesian mass housing policy that emphasized economies of scale in high-rise projects on cheap suburban estates, and thereby uprooted traditional working-class urban identities.

Yet the late-nineteenth-century and early-twentieth century conversations about the 'socialist city' provide invaluable starting points for thinking about the current planetary crisis. Consider, for example, the Constructivists. El Lissitzy, Melnikov, Leonidov, Golosov and the Vesnin brothers are probably not familiar names, but these brilliant socialist designers - constrained by early Soviet urban misery and a drastic shortage of public investment - proposed to relieve congested apartment life with splendidly designed workers clubs, people's theaters, and sports complexes. They gave urgent priority to the emancipation of proletarian women through the organization of communal kitchens, day nurseries, public baths, and cooperatives of all kinds. Although they envisioned workers clubs and social centers, linked to vast Fordist factories and eventual high-rise housing, as the 'social condensers' of a new proletarian civilization, they were also elaborating a practical strategy for leveraging poor urban workers' standard of living in otherwise austere circumstances.

In the context of global environmental emergency, this Constructivist project could be translated into the proposition that the egalitarian aspects of city life consistently provide the best sociological and physical supports for resource conservation and carbon mitigation. Indeed, there is little hope of mitigating greenhouse emissions or adapting human habitats to the Anthropocene unless the movement to control global warming converges with the struggle to raise living standards and abolish world poverty. And in real life, beyond the IPCC's simplistic scenarios, this means participating in the struggle for democratic control over urban space, capital flows, resource-sheds, and large-scale means of production.

I think the inner crisis in environmental politics today is precisely the lack of bold concepts that address the challenges of poverty, energy, biodiversity, and climate change within an integrated vision of human progress. At a micro-level, of course, there have been enormous strides in developing alternative technologies and passive energy housing, but demonstration projects in wealthy communities and rich countries will not save the world. The more affluent, to be sure, can now choose from an abundance of designs for eco-living: but what is the ultimate goal: to allow well-meaning celebrities to brag about their zero-carbon lifestyles or to bring solar energy, toilets, pediatric clinics and mass transit to poor urban communities?"


"Tackling the challenge of sustainable urban design for the whole planet, and not just for a few privileged countries or social groups, requires a vast stage for the imagination, such as the arts and sciences inhabited in the May days of Vhutemas and the Bauhaus. It presupposes a radical willingness to think beyond the horizon of neo-liberal capitalism toward a global revolution that reintegrates the labor of the informal working classes, as well as the rural poor, in the sustainable reconstruction of their built environments and livelihoods.

Of course, this is an utterly unrealistic scenario, but one either embarks on a journey of hope, believing that collaborations between architects, engineers, ecologists, and activists can play small, but essential roles in making an alter-monde more possible, or one submits to a future in which designers are just the hireling imagineers of elite, alternative existences. The planetary 'green zones' may offer pharaonic opportunities for the monumentalization of individual visions, but the moral questions of architecture and planning can only be resolved in the tenements and sprawl of the 'red zones.'

From this perspective, I believe that only a return to explicitly utopian thinking can clarify the minimal conditions for the preservation of human solidarity in face of convergent planetary crises. I think I understand what the Italian Marxist architects Tafuri and Dal Co meant when they cautioned against "a regression to the utopian," but to raise our imaginations to the challenge of the Anthropocene, we must be able to envision alternative configurations of agents, practices and social relations, and this requires, in turn, that we suspend the politico-economic assumptions that chain us to the present.

I speak, of course, as an aging Socialist, who still believes in the self-emancipation of labor with the same fervor with which Governor Palin believes in shooting caribou. But utopianism isn't necessarily millenarianism, nor is it confined just to the soapbox or pulpit. One of the most encouraging developments in that emergent intellectual space where researchers and activists discuss the impacts of global warming on development has been a new willingness to advocate the Necessary rather than the merely Practical. A growing chorus of expert voices warn that either we fight for 'impossible' solutions to the increasingly entangled crises of urban poverty and climate change, or become ourselves complicit in a de facto triage of humanity.

Thus I think we can be cheered by a recent editorial (11 September 2008) in Nature. Explaining that the "challenges of rampant urbanization demands integrated, multidisciplinary approaches, and new thinking,' the editors challenge the rich countries to finance a zero-carbon revolution in the cities of the developing world. "It may seem utopian," they write, "to promote these innovations in emerging and developing-world megacities, many of whose inhabitants can barely afford a roof over their heads. But those countries have already shown a gift for technological fast-forwarding, for example, by leapfrogging the need for landline infrastructure to embrace mobile phones. And many poorer countries have a rich tradition of adapting buildings to local practices, environments, and climates - a home-grown approach to integrated design that has been all but lost in the West. They now have an opportunity to combine these traditional approaches with modern technologies."

Similarly, the 2007/2008 United Nations Human Development Report warns that the 'future of human solidarity' depends upon a massive aid program to help developing countries adapt to climate shocks. The Report calls for removing the "obstacles to the rapid disbursement of the low-carbon technologies needed to avoid dangerous climate change. ... the world's poor cannot be left to sink or swim with their own resources while rich countries protect their citizens behind climate-defence fortifications." "Put bluntly," it continues," the world's poor and future generations cannot afford the complacency and prevarication that continues to characterize international negotiations on climate change." The refusal to act decisively on behalf of all humanity would be "a moral failure on a scale unparalleled in history."

If this sounds like a sentimental call to the barricades, an echo from classrooms and studios of forty years ago, then so be it. Because if you accept any of the evidence presented in the first half of this talk, then taking a 'realist' view of the human prospect, like seeing Medusa's head, would simply turn you into stone."