01.26.2012

Planet of Fields

Our new issue, “Earth, Wind, & Fire,” is out now. Check out the table of contents and subscribe today!

In a crisp vignette, the urban planner and social critic Lewis Mumford asked, “What is a City?” He answered: the city is a “Geographic plexus, an economic organization, an institutional process, a theater of social action, and an aesthetic symbol of collective unity . . . It fosters art and is art; the city creates the theater and is the theater.”

For Mumford, as for the slightly younger Paul Goodman and the slightly older Patrick Geddes, the city was an ark for social complexity, an incubator of human culture. They knew the urban form could grow wildly and lashed out at urbanism gone haywire: “Megalopolis is fast becoming a universal form,” Mumford wrote. And this would not be the first time it would be so. Those arguing that there were “no alternatives” — the recycled excuse of the addict — overlooked “too easily the historic outcome of such a concentration of urban power,” that it had “repeatedly marked the last stage in the classic cycle of civilization, before its complete disruption and downfall.” They did not merely forget the past. They spat upon it, embracing the forces of progress and urban concentration, as they arrived at a “universal megalopolis, mechanized, standardized, effectively dehumanized, as the final goal of urban evolution”: the city as dystopia.

Mumford presciently diagnosed the diseased late twentieth century urban form. He would have been chagrined, but probably not shocked, to find that the future had not merely borne out his diagnosis but that those charged with arresting the problem were still in denial about it. Outside the peasant international Via Campesina and its associated intellectuals, development debates are not about the relative weight of the city and the country, but about the technical minutiae of how to pack the residents of the latter into the former. This line of thinking is not just the province of Green Revolution–embracing devotees of industrial agriculture or semi-reformed apologists for capitalism like Jeffrey Sachs and Joseph Stieglitz but has captured the attention of a broad sweep of analysts, from the boosters of capitalism to its Cassandras.

For example, in a recent essay entitled, “Building the Ark,” urban theorist Mike Davis argues that the cities of the future and the cities of the South, the centers of both human population increase and carbon emissions, will become the arks in which the culture of twenty-first century human civilization will ride out the floods and tempests of the ecological devastation wrought by twentieth century carbon civilization. With sufficient care to safeguard public space, to make public the city’s private riches, to turn sprawl into swards, the metropolis might be transformed from one of the major causes of climate change into the Great Ark.

The motif is widespread, and problematic in every way possible. For one thing, pushing for the remainder of the world’s peasants to flood their cities means forced migrations — whether as drawn out and excruciating as the British enclosure of the commons or as rapid as the modern day sales of state land in Africa. As soon as one talks of massive population shifts, turning the global South’s remaining two billion peasants into city dwellers, the upshot is that their consumption patterns will less resemble those of people living in organic economies reliant on biomass and transition to mineral economies: those relying on the buried forests of the past that time and pressure have turned into coal, oil and gas. If the 70 percent of the world’s population currently stuck in poverty — most of them rural, and most of those in China, India, and Africa — were to adopt industrial resource-use patterns replicating those in the global North, humanity would require between twenty and thirty times the amount of annual US energy use, about equal to the potential net primary production of all Earth’s terrestrial biota.

That will never work, for the simple reason that it wouldn’t leave anything for the rest of the living species with which we share the planet, never mind what would happen to the atmosphere if we cut down all the trees. Meanwhile, if the fuel came from coal, the world would swiftly turn to Venus, the reason more “progressive” environmentalists like James Lovelock are having a late-stage love affair with nuclear power. They simply can’t imagine toning it down a bit.

And then there are those who think not of toning it down but of ramping it up. Bevies of development experts, roaming from Washington think tanks to conferences in the capitals of the global South, oblivious to the fallout from their forebears’ inattention to agriculture, fetishization of urban living, and shrugging at the ashes and ruins that lay behind the juggernaut of the development project, peddle a second Green Revolution in agriculture, hoping to structure the sowing of the fields of the Africa and Asia on a fully scientific and rational basis: capital-intensive, labor-light, and petroleum-fueled. On the social horizon is a completion of the denuding of the countryside of peasants and packing them ever-more tightly into the favelas, barrios, and shantytowns of Rio de Janeiro, Caracas, Mumbai, Shanghai, Lagos and Dakar while counting on a chimerical productivity increase to keep everyone fed. If it should happen that with enough technology, experts can conjure up that chimera, its presence will be evanescent, and with it will come the disappearance of the remainder of the rural smallholders who produce much of the world’s food.

Like them, Davis seems to consider cities a kind of black box into which one can dump the human population and worry later. Cities come in all shapes and sizes, but if there is one rule, the larger their populations, the more resources they require. Cities are basically black holes, drawing in massive amounts of energy and matter, and then excreting it as degraded waste back into the biosphere. Of course, all organisms absorb biomass to survive and excrete it as waste. The vice of modern mega-cities is their size. Being so big, rather than having a smooth metabolism with their peripheries, they disrupt them radically. To construct cities on such a huge scale has meant making much of the global South and the global North peripheries — or to draw on a more familiar parlance, colonies. Imperialism has always had an ecological component.

As Kenneth Pomeranz has pointed out, the British Industrial Revolution relied on extraterritorial supplies of land to overcome the land squeeze and the equilibrium trap it would have entailed, and fortuitously located coal supplies to overcome the timber squeeze. The cotton which fueled it was grown by slave labor in the American South. The slaves who worked that land were stolen from West Africa, whose land and resources England and the US planter class effectively pillaged in the form of the human bodies which that land and resources had nurtured to adulthood. For the West there has been enough, but only because resources have been stolen both spatially and temporally from the present inhabitants of the Third World and from the future inhabitants of the whole world.

William Rees and Mathis Wackernagel, who have formalized the notion of the ecological footprint to capture the spatial aspect of this dynamic, point out that “material flows in trade thus represent a form of thermodynamic imperialism. The low cost energy represented by commodity imports is required to sustain growth and maintain the internal order of the so-called ‘advanced economies’ of the urban North.” As they go on to write, the “toys and tools” of industrial man, the “human-made ‘capital’ of economists” should be characterized as the “exosomatic equivalent of organs.” And much like organs, they require circulatory flows in the form of continuous exogenous inputs of energy to keep them functioning.

However, it is impossible to put any reasonable price on those inputs: the temporal theft, in this case from the future. The subterranean forests that powered the transition to industrial civilization in most Northern societies should never have been burnt. Without the ability to refabricate fossil fuels or scatter dispersed ores, we must consider them nonrenewable. Since the energy stocks condensed in carbon fuels can’t currently be replaced, they are not merely difficult but impossible to value. The corollary is that one should set up consumption patterns and social institutions such that future inheritors of the earth will have as much ability to use carbon and metallic ores as the present generations.

Contemporary inability and unwillingness to erect such institutions is related to the calorically dense form of energy we use to power our societies, oil, and its synergy with the capitalist economy. As Timothy Mitchell writes, “Oil contributed to the new conception of the economy as an object that could grow without limit in several ways,” initially declining in price for the entire 1920–1970 period of national developmentalism, making it so that “the cost of energy did not appear to represent a limit to economic growth,” while further allowing the new discipline of economics, which would soon spawn the stepchild discipline of development economics, to “conceive of long-run growth as something unrestrained by the availability of energy.” The notion of limitless growth encourages a presentist morality: if we are sure that future generations will be geometrically wealthier than current ones, the upshot is that it seems increasingly reasonable to assume that they’ll have the social wealth to find proxies for the resources upon which current generations have gorged.

The move to an economic system premised on limitless growth also has had an ecological component. Temporarily transcending direct use of the sun’s energy was new in human history — a new energy regime. Previous ones were of far lower impact. In the first, that of hunter-gatherers, the human population took what it needed from foraging in the surrounding environs, corresponding to what Marshall Sahlins describes as stone-age affluence. That regime was very low impact. It also couldn’t support more than a tiny population. Whatever the abstract merits of such societies, they cannot offer a way forward for the massive populations inundating the cities and countrysides of the South.

The second is a society based on farming, in which people consciously skim off an ecological surplus from the biome while managing it so as to increase the surplus usable by human beings in the form of cereals or other kinds of caloric or non-caloric goods. Of course, this represents a massive intrusion into natural cycles, as natural cycles of succession, in which increasingly dense and big forms of flora replace simpler ones, are continuously interrupted by human ingenuity and intervention, but the alternative is not having enough food for 7 billion people. For the time being, we cannot do without cereal-based agriculture.

And then there is a third energy regime, the one in which the global North and swathes of the global South live, work, and die: the industrial energy regime, which relies on the subterranean forests that previous generations have left us — and which has used them up at an astonishingly fast rate. This regime relies on industrial agriculture, substituting dead biotic energy in the form of fossil fuels for human and living biotic energy. Industrial agriculture goes hand-in-hand with industrial civilization: the making of modern cities, modern slums, and the factories and workshops within which the denizens of the former labor.

One way or another, regime two must be centralized, what environmental historian Colin Duncan refers to as the centrality of agriculture. As he writes, future forms of agriculture will have to provide much of the “materials and energy that we are now in the habit of procuring almost exclusively in the industrial style, from petroleum especially.” In a sustainable setup, land use must yield a positive energy balance. The amount of energy put into agricultural production by man and animal traction must be less than the amount of energy that is withdrawn from it in the form of consumable harvest. Without hallucinating a pre-lapsarian idyll — agricultural civilizations have been capable of tremendous harm to their environments — such societies are capable of relative long-run sustainability and could take relatively good care of the people who live in them. Furthermore, it’s an anthropocentrism to think that nature must always contain a large place within it for human beings, summed up in the surreal conceit of man’s increasing dominance of nature. Nature always calls the shots. At the moment, the environment is arranged in such a manner as to facilitate large human populations and easy living. That could change very quickly.

It is the task of humans to regulate the society-nature metabolism and make sure it is not a destructive one. That means moving beyond high-modernist abstractions and especially beyond the notion that the rush to urbanization in the Third World should be accelerated rather than arrested. For Mumford, there was no rootless and restless dreaming about an abstract urban form. The hypertrophic city was an artifact of an incredibly sophisticated society. Byzantine, powerful, those cities and the civilizations within which they were embedded rested on hierarchical and complex technologies. He laid out the provenance and pathways of such megatechnics, contrasting them with democratic, organic, simple, and egalitarian technologies. Both have existed in all human societies. The former allowed for incredible population densities, miraculous feats of engineering, and most importantly, an enormous accumulation of wealth. The latter had a different merit: they survived. The traces of the former one can see in the ceaseless drive to industrialization, urbanization, and capital- and input-intensive agriculture. But agriculture is also a technology, and done properly, is the apotheosis of the democratic and resilient human-scale technologies Mumford lauded.

It’s also an odd concession to the religion of progress to think that only modern industrialized society can secure healthy lives for people. For socialists, even for the heavy-industry worshipping Soviets, industrial progress was a means, never an end. As Duncan points out, “It is striking that those recognized elements of a ‘good life’ that are most strongly cross-cultural — good food and drink, nice garments, fine music and conversation, and comfortable housing — in no way require industry.” Advanced medical care, as he points out, is a separate issue, but the Cuban example shows clearly that a healthcare system capable of achieving excellent quality-of-life indicators need not be dependent on either extensive energy use or a society based on heavy industrialization and urbanization.

Of course, that runs against the grain of over one hundred years of development thinking, Marxist and mainstream alike. Yet the argument is not new. Nearly a century ago, as the Soviet Union was beginning its heavy industrial lock in, Ivan Kremnev penned a story of a time-traveler who woke up in 1980 after having been adrift for decades after the Bolshevik Revolution. Rather than the violent concentration of the peasantry in cities amid forced collectivization, peasant parties had captured the state. They rebuilt the entire country, abolishing towns of more than 20,000 people, dispersing the massive Moscow metropolis, creating local centers at railroad junctions, perfecting the communications network, and saturating the local centers in culture — theaters, museums, people‘s universities, sport activities, choral societies, all the classical accoutrements of city life that, he understood, did not need the dense and unsustainable conglomerations of people that inhabited Moscow. The text’s English translation is introduced dismissively by another Soviet writer, P. Orlovskii: “The forms of the peasant economy . . . are retrograde even compared with capitalist forms of agriculture,” he writes, while the “peasantry generally follows the proletariat, its politically more advanced and better organized fellow,” while the former struggles to preserve its “essentially reactionary ideals.” Even then, dumb farmers.

It is with equally unmerited dismissiveness that development’s contemporary priesthood treats models that center agriculture. In a world of unaffordable capital and unemployed — indeed, unemployable — labor, why would one worsen the situation by packing people into cities when labor is needed in the field? If industrial populations should be demanding shorter working days and guaranteed incomes, the countries of the South should be deploying policies removing them from commodity production loops, most importantly, through food sovereignty based on heavy investment in small-holder agriculture. Smallholder agriculture is not an antiquarian curio. Ghana experienced re-peasantization during the 1970–1984 period as its economy tumbled into disaster. The Cuban government has carried out a program of re-peasantization during the Special Period. Agriculture need not be an afterthought or an awkward adjunct to development. It could be, as Duncan writes, the scaffolding for a sustainable socialism nested in bioregions. The question is not one of plopping the populations of New York and London into fields with pitchforks in their hands. It’s of keeping the populations currently on the land on the land, and working from there.

So is this a Luddite fantasy, a reincarnation of the Romantic penchant for the countryside? Perhaps. After all, that’s the perspective of the neoliberal clergy. Development economist Peter Collier writes of “the middle- and upper-class love affair with peasant agriculture . . . With the near-total urbanization of these classes in both the United States and Europe, rural simplicity has acquired a strange allure. Peasant life is prized as organic in both its literal and its metaphoric sense.” This is the same criticism those holding out the promise of perpetual growth and industrial development as a route to universal prosperity have been putting forward for over a century. And a century later, nothing has changed. They’re still wrong.