The other day I wrote a letter to the newspaper. It wasn’t on a topic I ordinarily write about. It was for Helsingin Sanomat, photo below of the paper version, which I still indulge in on weekends.
Here’s my translation.
“Starting in August, Helsinki’s Youth Station will be restricting access to mental health and substance abuse services directed at 13 – 23 year-olds (as covered in the paper 23.7.2022). Thenceforth receiving help will always require a referral, presenting either moderate mental health problems or severe substance abuse issues.
Alongside all the other depressing streams of news, the short Helsingin Sanomat piece has stuck in my mind, even though I’m getting closer to being sixty. Should Helsinki not be focussing on the young, and where necessary be investing more rather than fewer resources into youth social work? At least there has been ample coverage in recent times of the challenges experienced by young people and children, who are growing up in the shadow of a pandemic, ecological crises and wars, and exhausted by all manner of competitions.
I am confused and a little frightened that the Youth Station’s work is to be reduced. Not taking responsibility for our young people erodes everybody’s wellbeing. At the moment is sounds as if the city is suggesting the young go seek help somewhere else.”
I wasn’t expecting them to publish it, but I’m pleased they did. They cut off a sentence from the end, noting that it’s not as if social enterprises abound that make up for this. Maybe it was for the better.
I consider my main occupation to be engaging in environmental politics through education and research. I can’t do that, nor do I believe can anyone, if the existential security of young people is dismissed in the way that Helsinki appears to be doing.
I didn’t dig into the reasons for the shift in municipal policy. I do know that in years gone by this service was considered a low-entry and easy-to-access form of support for people with difficulties that are usually very, very difficult to talk about.
I also spotted (on doing an online search for writing this post) that a psychiatric publication had shared the letter on Facebook where it appears to have collected a few likes.
Yours truly/angry expects to continue such little letter writing exercises in the future too.
Ordinary life where I live creates an ecological footprint that is not good. As readers probably agree, it contributes to many difficulties, including hunger, destruction and wars. As soon as I stop to think about it, it’s clear that my own consumption, for instance, has helped lead to a general erosion of the conditions for civil life. Drawing on the robust research of groups like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or the Stockholm Resilience Centre, I can easily link planetary crises to the everyday habits responsible for my ecological footprint.
One rarely stops to think, though, about things that appear so ordinary or normal. Even more difficult to question something that seems universal and, maybe, universally desired, like life in Helsinki, where I live. Arguably however, like life in many other wealthy cities, it is in fact WEIRD, rather unusual in human history and experience. How we live and how we think about how we live, also predisposes us to take a narrow view of human possibility. It has led to the belief, for instance, that society revolves not around human (let alone more-than-human) needs so much as consumer needs. Such thinking appears to be particularly common among those who are used to Wealth, Education, Industrialism, Riches and Democracy (hence the acronym WEIRD), which is aso a group that tongue-in-cheek I could call ‘my people’.
But the goods and lifestyles that so easily appear global or normal, and that my people take for granted are increasingly under threat. That multiple major crises are affecting life around the globe is surely apparent even to the most ill-informed or incurious.
On the other hand, there is also more room to consider alternative ways to live, and even to make personal choices based on such considerations. Some people for instance took the flourishing of COVID-19 (the virus, that is) as an opportunity to take stock of which activities could profitably be discontinued after the lockdowns, and those that could beneficially be developed further (to paraphrase one such thinker, Bruno Latour).
Though some hark back to the bad old ways, others want to make good use of the crisis.
Below I reflect on this from a personal point of view, mentioning a few I would prefer very much to cease doing, and some justifications for them.
Firstly, I do not want to travel by airplane. At least, I want to keep my flying to a minimum, perhaps allowing myself a carbon budget for one or two years at a time.
For one, as an adjunct professor of environmental policy at Aalto University, teaching highly engaged but also worried students about unsustainability and what might be done about it, I could not do so in good faith. Yet it has become expected of academics and fun-loving people wealthy people to travel long distances and to do so with increasing frequency. The adverse consequences of this expectation to fly are huge, not just for the planet and its inhabitants generally, but also for the academics pressured to travel cheaply and frequently particularly in the early part of their career, as Hannah Knox writes.
The cost of flying to the climate is high (perhaps between 4% and 8% of total emmissions currently and projected/hoped to grow). Flying is also corrosive of social and ecological fabric, consuming large areas of land and human resources for airports and low-paid and unsatisfying jobs. In practice, both high-end tourism and luxury aviation, from so-called ‘VIP’ treatment at airports to private jets, endorse and celebrate social values of inequality (being served by endlessly smiling staff!) and rather old-fashioned materialist aspirations. In recognition of these multiple problems, many climate scientists and energy-politics experts have for years reduced or even refused to fly, as also explained by Hannah Knox.
Long-distance travel is also intimately linked to the emergence of pandemics. For instance COVID-19 is one of many adverse outcomes of the complex developments in land-use and mobility patterns to which both academic and leisure flying have contributed. We can expect more pandemics for the same reasons. Important scientific research on how increased travel and new infectious diseases are connected, goes back decades. Here’s a recent paper on biodiversity loss and SARS-CoV that even the relatively uninitiated can grasp.
Even the war in Ukraine is connected to aviation. Or rather, it is connected to the multiple crises that have evolved globally as ordinary life has been made so fundamentally and complicatedly bound up with extracting non-renewable resources. Like too many other wars that have destroyed lives and places, this war is partly about European dependency on fossil fuels.
If a lot of violently extracted energy courses through the surroundings and the lives of most of us, people are increasingly resisting this state of affairs. As the growth of forms of activism across many sectors of society, business and academia included, there is also dissatisfaction with the world’s best brains concentrating on ways to make it possible for such energy-intensive lives to continue. Supporting arguments for less energy dependent lives, there is growing evidence coming from sustainability scientists that technical innovations alone can not lead to stabilizing the climate. Cultural and structural transformations are also necessary. There is also willingness to change, not least because it is clear that for the comforts, securities and other benefits of the WEIRD life to continue, pretty much everything must change. And this needs to happen well before 2050!
Meanwhile, the weird lifestyles and cultural (including economic) preferences of my people are predominantly treated as the only possible alternatives, with economic growth viewed as the key index of a society’s success. Energy consumption is talked about as something that needed to ‘recover’ after the pandemic. It did, energy-related CO2 emissions rebounded in 2021 to unprecedeted levels.
One lesson is that stabilising the climate won’t happen with technical gadgetry. Low-carbon or no-carbon developments may be preferable to the mainstream’s resource-hungry construction, but regenerating and reusing are even better. The slow life is good too. However it is achieved, moving quickly towards ways of life that don’t produce carbon emmissions in the first place, is important for rich and poor alike.
Climate stability can thus only be achieved through reductions in energy use. Like my people in general I can reduce driving, buy less stuff that will soon be thrown away, eat food that is local, seasonal and tasty rather than global, carbon-intensive and bland, and so on.
But to help everyone to do similar things that support environmental and human health, regulation is a must. Which brings me to something else I would like: to stop those who are trying to stop the regulating! Much of the appalling slowness of international action on emissions known to be harmful is still driven by special interests and lobbying. The evidence by now is staggering (see here, for instance).
Let me return to my own relationship to aviation. I want to drastically reduce my flying because I can control it. It turns out, though, that not wanting to fly can put us in awkward situations. Swedish flight shame notwithstanding, it’s still considered peculiar to want to avoid flying. It is more common for us to indulge the fantasy that an individual’s decisions on flying, or on energy use, are a drop in the ocean. So why not go on as before?
There are many answers. The great thing is that the conversation has started.
So, at the top of this post you can see an image from some travels of mine last month. Did I fly there from Helsinki? Yes, I did. From Southern England I then travelled by train and car slowly and wonderfully through to Edinburgh. It was great to see how much earlier the spring arrives there compared to us here in Finland. And it was a joy to meet so many old friends. My flights also emmitted about 600kg worth of carbon. That’s more than enough for one person for one year.
I don’t want my environmental footprint to be high, by any standard. But beyond noting that, I don’t need to calculate it.
Instead I can focus on cultural shifts around aviation. These will gradually have impact how flying is valued and thus on its material impacts.
For myself, when it comes to talking about flying, I feel in a better position today than just a year ago to confidently and politely say, “no thank you”.
The future seems to be arriving faster than we’d expected, whether materialised in chaotic climate, Russian troops invading Ukraine or massive changes to online life. But today I’d like to recall and celebrate the important fact that in these historic times it’s rather clear that many of those who specialise in anticipating the future, have been on the right tracks. And this has helped the rest of us. Their work goes on whether we notice it or not, though futures professionals do put out some communications, of course. Like this report by Finland’s Committee for the Future about Russia as a neighbour.
You might say foresight expertise really came into its own when COVID19 hit two years ago. At the time not everyone even knew about the existence of futures work, or, indeed, about Finland’s National Emergency Supply Agency. In spring 2020 they didn’t have the face masks that, in hindsight, might have made the Covid pandemic less disruptive in Finland. But their efforts certainly helped life in Finland to continue, if not as before, then at least in relative comfort and security for most of us.
Our health or the environment – or both?
The pandemic has alerted many to how complex a thing the once politically marginal concept of ‘the environment’ actually is. COVID made us (once again) aware of the deep and intense entanglements across time and space that global capitalist relations have generated. It ridiculed the way capitalist institutions have (had?) fooled themselves into believing that ‘over here’ can be kept separate from ‘over there’, a lesson that seems truly hard for wealthy westerners to grasp. Euqally oddly, the most comfortable among us behave as if the past, the present and the future are unconnected. Environmentalists and those who suffer today the harms of historic toxic discards know better.
Those dealing in the future with the left-overs of our efforts to deal with the pandemic may also think about how pasts and futures get tangled up.
‘Environmentalists’ and the term ‘environment’, which only really appeared in political life in the 1960s, can refer to many things of course. And they’ve shape shifted over the decades. But I think something is happening that is bringing the environment ‘in’ to places where it was formerly easy to ignore it. For a long time, even for us self-styled environmentalists, the environment was something distant or at least an intricate system for experts to know, and for us to learn about from them. It was necessary to have some specialist insight, in the seemingly good old days, to know that the environment was hurting.
No longer. The hurting and, I think, the environment are now right here, in our bodies. Teeny tiny, like a corona virus, yet with deadly and global impacts. The zoonotic diseases like the bird, swine and other influenza viruses that have affected the world in recent years are personal and family tragedies. They create new socio-economic and health divisions, affecting everything. They don’t concern just natural environments but have everything to do with the built and social worlds. They are also in our thoughts and emotions, our political and cultural preferences (particularly visible in young people’s protests that have shown no sign of abating), and in what we do for a living.
Environment = (geo)politics
And if ‘the environment’ really hit the world as a health problem with COVID, right now, in early March 2022, it’s also clearly a geopolitical problem. And it’s about to massively impact our wallets and weekly budgets.
Take energy. It comes in many forms, but I’m talking about the kind that economists and politicians talk about, the kind that fuels industry and economic life (which may or may not include human powers, for they are and they need energy too. But that’s to digress). Mainstream media has commented from time to time – over decades – on how addicted the capitalist world is to fossil fuels. And it has kind of been admitted that herein have long lain future geopolitical calamities or at least dangers.
Now, as unthinkable atrocities of war shake life in Europe, and as retaliation for this aggression comes in the form of economic sanctions more than in military hardware, more and more people who do not identify as environmentalists are also realising how disastrous this addiction to fossil fuels is.
The International Energy Agency published a 10 point plan for Europe to exit this crisis in recognition of this. But it feels pitiably timid, as if they’ve not really accepted how deep the sh*t is that we are in. Leading opinion is stuck, it seems, in the old thought patterns, where bads can and should be pushed far away in time and space.
Crisis, what crisis? As if ‘the environment’ didn’t concern everything!
Compare today’s response to the energy crisis of the 1970s, when supplies of oil and gas from the Middle East were cut, causing widespread alarm but also forcing change. It spurred on imaginative renewable energy projects as well as strict rationing programmes. I vaguely recall that time spent in our family car went down, and I know that economic activity relaxed a bit (three-day working week), but I also know that much was done to support changes that, it was hoped, might end our debilitating addiction to fossil fuels: renewables, public transport, smaller cars, etc. Today, in contrast, only grassroots initiatives and individuals, it seems, are really serious about transformation and starting it now.
Environment = economics = household economics
Another implication of how the environment is coming closer is that degrowth isn’t just a programme for preparing for tomorrow. De-growing in the sense of getting smaller, of shrinking, is a reality already affecting us.
Whatever future energy systems and sources I will end up living with, even in these wealthy parts of the world, good things are in shorter supply. We experience shrinkage even as prices go up. Thios isn’t what degrowth could be about, but actual degrowing and coping with destruction are part of our present reality, even far away from the unimaginable carnage of the war. And goodness knows what Russian household economies will feel like soon.
Here a few examples of how we are already – de facto – in a world of reduced goods.
1) Paper. Finland’s biggest newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat, has had to stop printing its weekend supplement on paper (as explained here in Finnish). War in Ukraine and a long-term strike in a major papermill mean not enough paper is available. Who’d have thought that the country that once produced the paper on which the London Times was printed, would end up in this situation! (So we access the information electronically, though I am not sure which is more detrimental, turning forests into daily papers or the growing carbon emissions of life digitalised.)
2) Food. Looking to my kitchen table, my personal addiction to bananas stares me in the face, but also reminds me that it too is vulnerable to plant diseases. Well, at least the Cavendish cultivar is, which accounts for most commercial banana production. I hope for system change in how bananas get to my kitchen table, behaviour change at that table. And I marvel at how a lime grown in Brazil can cost only 18 cents in a northern Finnish grocery.
Opening my fridge door, a range of forthcoming shortages confronts me. The easiest eating habit to drop will be occational almond milk habit. Drought and the ravages of plantation agriculture are likely to bring massive shortages rather soon. My already rather meagre consumption of meat and dairy products is likely to go down further. Indeed, the Finnish broadcasting company, YLE, announced this week, with curious understatement, that as a direct result of war in Ukraine, Finns may have to reduce their meat habit. Elsewhere alarm bells do ring louder, and looming lack of formerly taken-for-granted goodies is already well recognised.
Grains. In trouble. No surprise. And to turn them into bread, you need energy – getting more and more expensive each week. This will be painful particularly among the less well off (discussed here in Finnish) unless systems are put in place to prevent hunger, loss of livelihoods and civil unrest.
3) Healthy land. Decision makers are also stuck in the idea that it is cities and industrial landscapes that must be grown. So, areas of healthy biodiversity and regenerative landscapes of more rather than less peaceful coexistence get smaller and smaller. Queue those zoonotic diseases, for instance. Meanwhile, to prevent (the wrong kind of) animals from encroaching on human comforts, but also to keep wild creatures afraid of humans, Finnish authorities advocate what they call game-husbandry. Conversion of land from biodiverse to technology-intensive continues apace, in Finland as elsewhere. This goes with shouting matches (and worse) about the morality and otherwise of nature conservation (of which more in later posts, I hope). What’s striking about some of this is that the entanglement of environment and economy, which is beginning to be recognised in some areas of life, can so easily be forgotten or ignored in others.
Futures built on livelihoods, not economics
I only follow research around political economy to the extent that it helps me make sense of environmental and sociocultural issues. Rather than economy, a problematic term if there ever was one (as heterodox economists, environmentalists and researchers of many kinds have often noted), I am more interested in livelihoods. That’s a word that refers to ways of reproducing and regenerating life in all its creative, destructive and vulnerable dimensions. Some of us social scientists like to use that word because it captures a reality that people actually struggle with. It doesn’t divide the world up into academic and institutional silos like the economy, the environment and society.
To get back to the work of long-term planning and foresight that I began with, it’s clear that it is more significant than ever. And so I’m keeping an eye out for foresight work, particularly where it has emerged from concerns that are conventionally thought of as environmental, like participatory foresight exercises related to food. And, starting next month, I’ll once again be teaching about futures work on the Values in Design Futures course with another inspiring colleague at Aalto University, İdil Gaziulusoy.
As a diffuse sense of crisis continues, I count my blessings that there are still universities and intellectual networks that make it possible to learn with foresight and collective intelligence. We cannot and, fortunately, need not just rely on hindsight or on commodified know-how.
At least at the two universities currently supporting my livelihood, the University of Oulu and Aalto University, still make such an enterprise possible.
This post (14.1.) is a slightly tweaked version of the text originally posted 4th January. It reflects on the holidays just gone and the place that digital devices and walking took therein.
I did quite a lot of reading, and that always makes me want to write. The reading also got me thinking about how digital or, perhaps more descriptively, computerised, technology mixes with bodily and other material. It got me reflecting about how the analogue (or biophysical) gets embedded in the digital. For analogue you could also read biophysical, for digital you could also read capital-intensive. But I’m trying to keep it simple.
Besides reading, one of my inspirations was a conversation I had about why and how so many can assume that the digital is immaterial.
I am old-fashioned enough to consider the word ‘digital’ to refer to a gadget, a thing, a device or an infrastructure. It has less to do with anything virtual or immaterial, and more with quite solid things like digits, binary code, computing, even fingers. Insightful literature on the consequential materiality and geographic reality of what is peddled as immaterial (‘virtual’, ‘digital’, ‘in the cloud’, ‘placeless’, etc.) has been around for a couple of decades and more. See here, here and here and via many other links and connections besides.
The consumerism of Christmas was again full of gadgets, just as the news was still about COVID, climate crisis and biodiversity troubles. It made me even more astonished about how under-appreciated are the material costs of all that is computerised. Sure, Apple recently announced that it was joining the right-to-repair movement, which has been fighting against business-generated (planned, as in planned obsolescence) e-waste for years. Yet countless people in many walks of life still assume – or just don’t stop to think about the point – that a computer, a mobile phone, a downloaded song, streamed film, a click of a keyboard or word spoken to Siri (does she still exist?), etc. are virtual in the sense of ethereal. They seem to involve not much stuff, at least not very much of it. (“Oh no, that was the age of dirty industries, back in the bad old days…”)
Activists of many kinds (e.g. anyone worried about e-waste) know that this view is wrong. But perhaps the belief isn’t surprising either. The digital has been designed to enter our lives most explicitly via ‘user-friendly’ screens. The infrastructures responsbile for the rest of the experience are (as infrastructures are) black-boxed, designed to be unnoticed, hidden or seamlessly integrated into existing environments.
Sure, the box goes back a long way when it comes to celebrating Christmas [imagine here an image from the Simpsons, all sitting on the sofa watching telly together, perhaps with a Christmas tree in the background]. In the holiday season gadgets remain important as we indulge in ample televisual entertainments as well as social media.
Now in the twenty-first-century, it’s more ‘social’ media than ‘broadcast’ that grabs us, and draws us into the Information and Communications Networks that form a good chunk of the consequential environment of our everyday life. They aren’t either good or bad. They are. For instance, as Christmas changed according to the pandemic, our various digital devices of course helped us manage the altered holiday plans.
In our household we eventually put plan C into practice after considerable online time, messaging and telephoning, adjusting how we would place ourselves in this season of traditionally intense sociability, given the constraints generated by the pesky virus.
Plan A, going to the UK, stumbled on lack of booster vaccines and news of shambolic non-efforts in public health. Plan B, joining relatives in the countryside, stumbled on a reported exposure. So we joined friends in town at theirs and then walked to Hietaniemi cemetary to light candles for departed ones. It was just lovely. Similarly New Year’s Eve was downgraded from a party (eagerly anticipated by the pre-teens) to a dinner party (happily also enjoyed by the pre-teens). It was also just lovely.
Whether you reflect on it or not, a holiday is a very bodily thing. Between all this eating, we have also walked very much, both in central Helsinki (including Lauttasaari) and in Kirkkonummi’s Porkkalanniemi (a good tip for afternoon walks for anyone in these parts with access to a car, even a temporary/shared one). Since I prefer to live an appless, gadget-lite, life, I cannot report distances travelled or steps taken in numeric forms. This doesn’t mean I’m not keen on numbers or see them as informative. (See this interview with historian Lorraine Daston for a great read about that.)
One of my reasons for being extremely reluctant to use digital applications is that they that require me to give away data about me (and my body). Beyond that, although the world seems to want me to install and use apps at every turn, and even though my leaders and many colleagues wax lyrical about the benefits of digitalisation, I am highly sceptical of the idea that digitalisation (however defined) might solve any crisis. I am particularly shocked by how easily it is assumed that climate crisis will be fixed with gadgets that run on electricity.
Yet this naively optimistic line is much peddled, from the World Economic Forum to Finland’s political and business leaders. Along with it go old social-theory vocabularies that wax equally optimistically about the space-of-flows and about economics unmoored from its material aspects. Such thinking is associated in Finland with information-age-philosopher Pekka Himanen as well as Manuel Castells, and gets much traction in a country of technophiles.
Electronically mediated yet fully embodied
I’m not a technophile but if I am a Luddite, I’m a discriminating Neo-Luddite, not opposed to tech as some kneejerk reaction (as explained here by Jathan Sadowski). As our Christmas made clear, once again, the world wide web is great at keeping people ‘in the loop’ with others. The pandemic has made the point many times over. And yet, the web has also been peddling much trouble.
As someone with an occasional blogging habit, perhaps my preference for analogue things sits awkwardly with the easy way that social media does intrude on and add to my everyday life. The ‘virtuality’ afforded by the digital has undoubtedly helped keep me in mental health. It has mediated countless conversations with people I know, and delivered eye-opening news from ones I don’t, particularly since March 2020.
As the pandemic inspired novel pastimes, like baking, cooking, needlework and all manner of making, the web has penetrated like never before into homes and other spaces. It has guided material flows and transformations, and possibly our cognitive, affective and biophysical experiences too.
Undoubtedly, via the web I’ve found about where the ice rinks are maintained, and give my body some of the activity that it desires (life online is terrible for it). I can, indeed, use it for connecting with others, notably those who have interests aligned to mine, walking, for example.
All this takes me back, of course, to walking. On which note, dear reader, check out Urban Walks Hki on Instagram. Ahem!
Walking – again
Since the start of the pandemic the streets around me in Helsinki have gone through their own transformations and variations, emptying out and coming back to life as the situation has developed. Walkers, in groups and in ones and twos, have been noticeable in Helsinki pretty much since the spring of 2020. Sometimes you see them, at some street corner or in front of some notable edifice, listening to a guide, all turning their gaze towards the same feature pointed out to them. Some are linked to bigger networks (like Kävelybuumi, in Finnish) and festivals.
Even the huddles of screen-starers periodically appearing in our neighbourhood (are they geocachers?) are part of this new walking boom. My phone has little to do with my walking. Still, mostly I have kept my phone with me, with its COVID-contact-tracing app scanning my surroundings with bluetooth technology. More recently I’ve taken to leaving the phone at home. There is obviously much walking than the kind that leaves traces online.
(As part of my upcoming research for the CONTOURS research project – of which more on this blog in the future – I am also practicing the use of a GoPro camera as a digital fieldwork aid, and so far have found it mostly enjoyable. What, exactly, the combination of walking bodies and recording machines will yield, is still to be worked out. I was going to uplad a snippet of me practicing, but I’d need to upgrade to a more expensive blog platform, so I will save that for later. Instead, here is a photo of the Koivukoski power station in Kajaani taken in November. It will feature in future research.)
I keep coming back to the question of what is it with walking as a ‘method’. As I’ve written before, maybe it’s a method in search of a topic. That may be, but the evidence for ambulatory habits as an excellent way to learn about the world is overwhelming. Walking must have been key to the early days of the modern sciences, when counting bits of nature was very important – think of the painstaking and probably boring surveys of forests, grasslands, earth worms and what have you that animate natural history of all kinds. And then I think of the virus hunters of today, doing work described by National Geographic as swashbuckling, figuring out “the basic drivers of spillover—the complex relationship among human activity, environmental degradation, animal behaviour, and virus microbiology”. In walking today, I hope to bring to consciousness the sensorium created over billions of years as a geological base and now being reformatted by ‘digital’ and often capital-oriented imperatives. Ones, which as I noted above, I don’t even particularly like or think are beneficial.
More mundanely, walking is just a small but significant aspect of learning. Walking is what humans and many other creatures do anyway. Regardless of what one is learning about, walking and metaphors of wayfinding derived from it, are ubiquitous and helpful, as Tim Ingold reminds us (his book Lines available here, digitally).
And walking is what I’ve been doing with the Urban Walks Hki gang (more pics of the walk pictured below here). Their wonderful images and lively prose extend and deepen the walks. But the point for me has mostly been the fun, the collective imaginings as we wander and wonder.
We are all interested in global circuits of stuff as well as ideas and we walk to make connections. We walk to learn. Myself, I tend to focus on traces of infrastructures that are usually hidden. Those traces give us pretty good clues about the materiality of our brave new spaces of flows. The interesting thing for me is that although these networks and circuits support unremarkable everyday practices, it’s also pretty clear that they generate unintended side effects (thank you Ulrich Beck, the sociologist who might even help deal with COVID-19), and they require incredible amounts of matter as well as energy (trickier to conceptualize than matter, but still, as we know, a troublesome thing to be over-producing in our age).
So let me end these seasonal musings by also recommending this post, which shows in words and images the extent of anthropogenic mass on the planet, noting (like an earlier Nature article) that in 2020 the amount of human-made stuff exceeds all living biomass. A lot of it is concrete. In 1900 there was 2Gt of the stuff, by 2020 that figure had risen to 549Gt. (Numbers are good sometimes, so are visualisations). As intensified land-use meets changing Earth systems, designing for sustainability (something I am invested in) will require noticing and communicating much more perceptively about infrastructures, landscapes and the creatures that live with them.
So basically I’m suggesting – again – that walking merely starts us on our way to appreciating just how complex are the things we – all – need to appreciate. Walking together and alone, we really do get a grip (note the body-metaphor) on how spaces of flows are also spaces of viral transmission, violent material displacements (extractivism), genocidal prejudice not to mention unequal border procedures and lots and lots of other not-so-welcome phenomena.
But two good things. Walking remains cheap and doable. I no longer feel as lonely in my criticisms of digitalisation-hubris as was the case only a couple of years ago.
The autumn’s dark evenings are closing in and the island cabin from where I’ve worked so much in recent months will soon be but a memory. Poised between the teaching to come and the summer just gone, here some thoughts inspired by the island, but also by the Urban Environments Initiative symposium of July 2021. There I joined a great bunch of people to discuss the “irritations and unforeseen consequences of ‘the urban’”.
My presentation was included in the session on Futures, focussed as it was on the planning controversy around Vartiosaari, Helsinki, that I’ve written about more than once on this blog.
It was the “unforeseen consequences” of the urban in the conference title though that had piqued my interest. The threatened urban oasis that is Vartiosaari island (the 70 hectares are within Helsinki’s municipal boundaries) is definitely an urban product (among other things).
Here’s one description:
“So close but a world away. Vartiosaari feels like it’s somewhere deep in the countryside, where the natural landscape is still intact. The island is located in the inner archipelago of Eastern Helsinki […] 7 km as the crow flies East from the city centre. […] The whole area is important habitat for bats and includes the only spot in Finland where the critically endangered plant petasites spurious (also known as ‘Wooly [sic] Butterbur’, or ‘Rantaruttojuuri ‘ in Finnish) has been found. Interesting geological features include large boulders, rocky remnants of the ancient shoreline and the Litorina sea. Over 50 villas, the oldest dating back to the late 19th century, form part of Vartiosaari’s cultural equity…”
Over 100 years ago, it was developed to be a special place, a haven of relaxation and recreation, and some of that luxury still remains.
Vartiosaari’s villas and cottages were designed to be near, but not too near, to central Helsinki. The idea was that heads of households might travel to work in the city centre, while their women and children, and no doubt some domestic help, could stay by the sea and enjoy its many delights. In other words, this paradise island came about thanks to bourgeois and industrial histories.
But I began writing this post at an island cabin. While there, I occasionally ventured into debates – in person, in text, online – around the more-than-human and multispecies sustainability. (I’ll list some of the sources that have inspired me at the end of this text.)
Multispecies and more-than-human
For me, those are comparative terms, part of a language that scholars, and perhaps policy makers and activists of different kinds, draw upon to make things visible and debatable, and in doing so, make them part of a bigger issue – environmental threats of pretty awesome scope. I’ve seen how artists and activists in Vartiosaari (and elsewhere) have used them to help notice pattern and nuance, and to ask better questions. This often happens in some polyglot language, mixing Finnish or Swedish vernacular, say, with English or French academese. Basically, art and activism easily merge in efforts to remind us all that we are all entangled in and dependent on nature.
Going back to our island cabin, multispecies life is a more hands-, eyes- and noses-on concern. In my last post I noted how flows between insides and outsides of bodies are particularly felt on the island. For one thing, drinking water must be carried there in canisters. I dwelt more on how dealing with human waste concretizes the interest in microbial life that Anthropocene-sensibilities have stimulated.
I’m no ecologist, but in seeking some grasp of how my environment works – the island – I’ve been able to sense without too many gadgets quite a few troubles accumulating for us humans as well as for the nonhumans.
It wasn’t just people who got hot this past summer. It turns out that Baltic herring did not cope well in the warm temperatures. Simply using my eyes, every day I got to wondering whether the definitely dead bilberry bushes might be climate change in action – a long-term disaster for humanity as a whole – and not just a local and short-term phenomenon of little interest to anyone, it seemed, but me. As the heat wave (?) continued, like everyone else, we innovated for thermal comfort, not with AC, I’m happy to report, but by rigging up sails to create shade. The drought, the ticks (carried in particular by the newly abundant and increasingly bolshy deer), the blue-green algae, the disappearing wrack and the Baltic Sea as a whole, all added to my discomforts.
They are evidence of changes of many kinds. In my childhood there would never have been a deer’s hoofprints by our cabin, pressed into the same mud as the tread of our wheelbarrow and my rubber boot.
But this is still an urban world
All this, to me, justifies talk of the more-than-human and multispecies, in connection with sustainability and justice. I am among the lucky whose environments generally change slowest (places like most cities’ richest neighbourhoods, or our island, for intance.) Yet even the world I inhabit, and most of those with whom I dialogue, is being lost. I am not sure anyone, human or nonhuman, will adjust very well to the ecological or the moral or political shifts this entails.
And yet, when invoking nonhumans remains a micro-level critique of Western dualism and colonial violence – which it can be – its political as well as intellectual force won’t be that strong. Better to contextualize it in discussions that make more explicit links to political, infrastructural and economic commitments. (For commitments are something to work with as well as against).
There’s also been a lot of talk, not to say hype, about how cities are the culprits and the solutions to global problems. When this translates into the idea that urbanization, as the growth of cities and the construction of ever new capital-intensive environments, is a Good Thing and should be supported by right-thinking, particularly environmentalist types, this scares me. (And when it happens in my town it also angers me, even when undertaken on brownfield, as below). Instead, I would highlight how species entanglements and urbanization, and the extractivism and exploitation that now inevitably goes with it, shape each other.
Geographers are busy debating planetary urbanization in their conferences and journals. And, as far as I can work out, right now common sense and a growing body of research on the mass (literally) of anthropogenic stuff on the planet, indicates that “the urban” has engulfed or colonized everything. Environmental social sciences and humanities report on countless places around the world, given over to the needs of urbanized life (well, profit making as a justification for existence) that millions of humans and non-humans are being forced to flee from or avoid.
My point is that materially, culturally, economically, our cabin life unfolds far from any big city but for all that it is urban, that is, industrial. It is a flipside of the industrial and urban political economy that brought comforts once only imaginable as luxuries – full bellies, health, fulfilled lives, and so on – to millions. As industrial livelihoods have become normal, urbanites have felt the need for something other than the city, a hinterland that would support the town not just physically but also emotionally. Romanticizing the not-city was part of how urbanization as a modern phenomenon developed (say, from around 1840 when Chicago’s population was less than 5000!). Raymond Williams and William Cronon in their different ways, pioneered ways to appreciate that the mutual dependencies between centres and peripheries became more intense and consequential with industrial capitalism.
So the not-city, the countryside, the wilderness or other rural nature, emerged as a natural [sic!] remedy for growing numbers of urbanites to find relaxation. This perhaps helped hide the reality, also well known to activists and scholars, of how much and how badly the not-city and its life has been plundered. Environmental defenders around the world know only too well that extraction from and dumping in the hinterlands is not novel. But it is getting worse. Though some say it’s a price “we” must pay if we want to beat climate chaos with technology, it is likely to lead to more ruin everywhere.
Back to Finland though, where centre (big city, or at best big cities) and periphery (rural areas) also need to be thought together again. Sketching with a very broad brush, I’d say landscapes all over Finland were made over in ever more industrial processes, to service an export economy based on forest products. Finland’s forests aren’t exactly plantations, but nor are they havens of diverse life. As the forests were simplified, cities grew, bringing people away from livelihoods and communities around the country. Capital-intensive infrastructures were created for expanding trade and strengthening consumer culture. Industrialized rural landscapes also became the material basis of modern society in Finland.
These developments were very clear to see here in the last century. My guess is that as modernization progressed, the winners and the losers came to believe in the inevitability of this, and the price paid in the landscape. The wealth that got channelled into summer residences, like those at issue in Helsinki’s idyllic Vartiosaari island, likely came from one or another form of extractivism, from forests, mines and workers within Finland, probably also from places even further away. And the same for our island cabin. To buy that kind of property you needed to be rich. And in modern times, that has meant being part of and servicing an urban world.
Finland is a super lucky place, a “comfortable slot” (as I wrote in this fine book) for a great many. This makes ir hard sometimes to persuade folks here that the extracting of goods and the dumping of bads at the accelerated rate that our so-called economy is doing, is bringing misery not just to the poor or the far-away, but to us wealthy folks. Totally devastated by floods, the German towns we saw in the news this past summer, are sufficiently “like us” that they might shock us out of our own misguided belief that cyclones and droughts are for the “others” and such terrible things could not happen to us.
So with worsening global environmental degradation, it’s time to combine histories, urban history and environmental history, for instance. This was one of my take-aways from the Urban Environments Initiative event, a view also posted online by Simone Mueller, here. It turns out many are already working on putting together accounts of things that have so far been kept mostly separate in academia (urban versus environmental). This is also enhancing our learning, enriching understanding with ordinarily hidden and ignored stories, such as feminist history and labour histories. Such research makes it utterly clear that entanglement is real and ubiquitous. Furthermore, for the most part and probably in most cultures, it is also noticed.
So yes, our cabin life is definitely modern and urban, and I don’t want to romanticize it. And yet, my sense is that Finnish cultures of nature, such as our summer cabin habits, do allow a bit more noticing than might otherwise be the case. Maybe Finland’s “young” modernity still allows a range of reactions to scary environmental change. That is, whilst there is ample hype about technological solutions here, there is, thanks to the heightened bodily awareness that Finnish cabin life can bring about, an always-already accessible appreciation that we depend on others and that none get out of here alive.
That, for me, is actually a source of joy.
Some references, folks, that are woven into these thoughts:
Angelo, H., & Goh, K. (2021) Out in space: difference and abstraction in planetary urbanization. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 45(4), 732-744.
Cadena, M. ., & Blaser, M. (2018) A world of many worlds.
Celermajer, D., Schlosberg, D., Rickards, L., Stewart-Harawira, M., Thaler, M., Tschakert, P., … & Winter, C. (2021) Multispecies justice: theories, challenges, and a research agenda for environmental politics. Environmental Politics, 30(1-2), 119-140.
Though it’s a bit awkward, the concept of more-than-human is turning out to be popular among many who are trying to make sense of today’s scary environmental change. The concept of nature feels comparatively alien or at least unfashionable.
From where I am sitting – a small island in Finland’s southwestern archipelago – nature is too overwhelming and present to be ignored.
The other night, for instance, as I sat with neighbours over a dinner of delicious locally grown fare, we compared animal sightings – swans of many kinds, a black heron, the sea eagle (we’re quite possessive about her/him), bats, jumping fish, butterflies and dragonflies to name a few – and laughed at our good fortune.
Thanks to COVID, I have been spending more time than usual here at my family’s summer cabin. It has left me thinking a lot about my personal route to academic work on unsustainability. Luxuriating in the quiet of an island cabin I have been contemplating how physical geography has been modified by human action. This phrasing borrows from the subitlte of the famous book by George Perkins Marsh and it’s topical in light of this week’s IPPC news.
In this blog post and the next, I’ll reflect on why right now it is the human action that needs to be taken especially seriously even though the more-than-human can – at least in my case – be a spur to curiosity about human affairs.
Thinking and talking about these questions is something I have done a lot of, particularly while at the cabin. Almost always it produces an emotional roller-coaster. This year, though, my thoughts have been given more shape than usual by a few research-related events:
I’ll also mention a public event on urban development curated by the You Tell Me collective, in Helsinki’s Kasarmintori.
I’ll come back to those in a subsequent post – hopefully. In this post I set the scene – that roller-coaster. To be clear though, this isn’t about or a contribution to “nature writing”, it’s more about trying out ideas about people in environmental research and politics.
My neighbours here are relatives, our cabins inherited from our parents, who inherited this place from their parents. In economic terms, family thus still matters, even in a WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialised, rich, democratic) place like Finland (as I wrote about earlier), but also elsewhere in the Nordics (as hilariously captured here by Ylvis and very seriously studied by anthropologist Simone Abram here). In fact, property assets in the form of summer cottages are economically quite significant for us Finns. Two summers of pandemic-induced travel restrictions have only emphasised that they have use-value too.
As far as I know, I’ve been coming here every year since 1965: hours in the car, a short ride by outboard motor, then the sea and its pleasures, relatives to hang out with and horizons and sunsets to marvel at and sketch or share on IG. This ridiculously dry summer I have actually missed the “good old” rainy days of flopping inside with magazines and books.
But like cabin goers across Finland, I marvel at the power of nature and delight at its noises. Visitors may baulk at drinking water needing to be rationed (and carried here) or the crude sanitary facilities, or they may squeal at creepy-crawlies of many sizes (though most grow out of this). We all develop a visceral awareness of the cycle of life through the endless management of our own pee and poo. Seasons matter here, as do surprises like “unseasonable” storms or unprecedented droughts.
As a teenager in the early 1980s, though, I was trying to get my head around persistent talk of threats to this Baltic paradise. I began, for example, to value the bladder wrack or seaweed (above) that grew at the water’s edge. Because it tickled us as we went swimming I wanted it gone. Then, year by year there was less of it. I was told this was a sign of deteriorating water quality, and learned words like eutrophication, phosphorous and HELCOM. Soon I was struggling to understand why people were allowing pollutants from fish farms, agricultural run-off or marine transport to continue and even expand, when the grown-ups I knew were always talking about how these things really ought to be stopped.
(And so, when Greta Thunberg burst onto the global scene, with her incredulity at adults’ idiocy, I totally got it. Maybe I should have risked upsetting the adults more when I was her age.)
Some of my cousins “got into nature”. But I was not so interested in the details of the nonhuman realm. I assumed it would always be there, a reasonably stable background, context, environment for human creativity and innovation. The things that intrigued me about island life revolved around people and governance (as I would call it now), about how at different scales, people should act in this environment. Ultimately I had to ask, how, despite knowing about the damage slowly creeping up on us, were my people not reversing it?!
I went to study anthropology. I wanted to know about people and how they operate. Maybe I intuited something akin to what Anand Pandian put into words recently: that anthropology has never ”simply abstracted people from place and context in order to say something about them. […] There’s no way of producing an adequate understanding of what might happen in a particular human milieu without paying attention to an infinity of details about all the other human and nonhuman elements, living and non-living, that populate, animate, and motivate that lifeworld. So […] it’s important for us to acknowledge that anthropology has long had resources for a more robust environmental orientation”.
This isn’t only a personal problem, it’s a collective one. And I think it has a lot to do with the persistent habits of Modern thought, but especially imagining that it requires fancy intellectual footwork to discuss nature and culture together. Actually, we do it all the time.
I also claim that modern Europeans are pretty clear about what nature signifies even if we are hazy on what it is, where it begins and ends or whether indeed, we have long (at least since 1992 in England) been After Natureanyway.
So it has struck me this summer, how even Finnish kids, brought up in this nature-friendly culture, can struggle to live with those natural cycles I mentioned – pee and poo in particular – and are keen to separate out nature and artifice. But kids quickly learn and respect the cultural ways of living with nature that we, with others, have developed in our cabins. The rules about where and how to pee, what to do with toilet paper and so on, build on the surrounding nature and the surrounding people and become quite normal.
The authors are architectural experts, deeply unhappy with current planning in Helsinki. They view it as participation-washed as well as green-washed, and even more opaque and conflict-ridden than before. Worse still (perhaps), the environment it produces is not up to the standard that Finnish architecture has historically aspired to – and often achieved.
As we gear up to local elections on June 13th, people and the media really are interested. What the administration’s growth ambitions and the needs [sic] of foreign capital mean for life in future Helsinki are, it seems, finally news.
The book approaches current planning through fifteen controversial proposals in or close to the city centre. If these go ahead, the book suggests, they will smother and spoil the low-rise and breathable cityscape Helsinki now enjoys. The iconic South Harbour is a particular area of concern, the surroundings of our equally iconic main railway station another. The authors also point out that the city’s plans are often contrary either to the international principles of heritage preservation, for instance, we have signed up to or actually illegal.
Echoing the book, letters to editors and online commentary by citizens is overwhelmingly opposed to the city’s visions. People don’t like the scale and the bling. A prominent example concerns building over the open-air but covered bus terminus between the former main post office and the railways station: below a screenshot from the city’s online consultation.
The old pamphlet is now a precious antiquarian collector’s item.
The new pamphlet is available in not just neat print but also as handy pdf, in Finnish, as it should be, and I am certainly hoping it will have a similar impact to the 1970 publication.
The problems are neither unique nor new, but imaginations and hopes for good futures have been clawed back since 1970. The institutional structures for making good cities are simply wrong (some references as they relate to Helsinki can be found in a paper I co-wrote here). Any city now deemed successful has to cope with financialization and its costs on people and lively surroundings. As the documentary film Push showed so nicely, heavyweight lobbying and dominant financial practices push people out while pulling investors in. Democratic accountability and social fabric suffer, as does built heritage.
What’s strange is how long it took the public in Helsinki to notice that this is also happening here.
A slow waking up was prompted by the rather unhappy process of drawing up Helsinki’s City Plan or the 2016 development plan. This plan explicitly encourages finance-led construction: dense, high, efficient and efficiently built, remorselessly marketed, where the new squeezes out the old. The atmosphere will be less that of Helsinki’s low-rise cityscape, which suits our peculiar light conditions so well. What is in the pipeline also threatens the quiet elegance of the city centre and many suburbs, and in cramming formatted and over-designed novelties across the city, will weaken the quirky attractions Helsinki still nurtures. So much of this place-based good has already been replaced by bland sameness because this is what big investors and their accomplices want.
British architecture critic Jonathan Glancey reflected on the effects of this on Helsinki in wistful language back in 2015, in the book Cindy Kohtala and I edited. Helsinki, which Glancey had once experienced as a gem, had started losing its shine. Cheap global brands had displaced a dear local uniqueness. What, Glancey mused, was the point of coming to Helsinki at all.
If the public were unconcerned in 2015, things have changed. I was told that the first print run of Kenen Kaupunki? quickly sold out. I did get mine – eventually.
Caring for the neighbourhood and following planning is still hard work. The outpouring of property porn (as in a picture I’ve used before, flogging Kalasatama, below) and populist talk of housing shortage constantly narrows down public debate. Large and ever more complex development proposals are presented to council representatives as black boxes too complicated to be opened up (to use one councillor’s term). With these black boxes in hand, the construction sector and its friends, offer great futures but also make demands that, the pamphlet argues, go against any notion of the greater good. They allow our parks, protected cultural heritage, our streets and squares to be turned into construction sites while private interests usually trample over public value.
Harri Hautajärvi, one of the editors, does a great job of linking the troubles in our city to global patterns, calling out as he does so, the falseness of any claims to save the planet with “efficient” construction. The other editors, Timo Tuomi and Juhana Heikonen, write chapters detailing just how, exactly, the tensions between short-termism and historical values affect planning in Helsinki today. Now that Helsinki is recognized as an excellent place to invest, telling this story is more important than ever. Indeed, a great strength of the pamphlet is that it zooms out to comparative situations from other places and other times.
The fact is that cities everywhere have to worry about how “form follows finance”. Most municipalities probably struggle against economic imaginaries that make it impossible or difficult to support the social good, like publicly financed homes or inspiring school buildings. And, as the book notes, the anarchy of markets has never been known to solve housing crisis. Of course, when we look back into history, as Maria Kaika and Korinna Thielen argued (in 2006), we do find that of course architecture has long glorified power, individual companies, for example. Think in Helsinki of the corporate headquarters like the telephone company, HPY, or the insurance company, Pohjola. But now, what gets built in your town now simply glorifies big-companies-in-general, the point being to extract rent from businesses that are passing through more than putting down roots.
Helsinki’s administration, and even its Green Party representatives, do not actually deny the main criticisms made in the pamphlet, appealing simply to the TINA-doctrine (there-is-no-alternative) or stereotyping opponents as backward. It is indeed city strategy to “to enable private interests access to those places they want” (our outgoing mayor Jan Vapaavuori, who is about to start working for an international property developer, as quoted on p. 18).
It’s a complicated thing, running a city. Talking about its planning in an era of grave Earth Systems imbalances and other novel vulnerabilities, one can’t ignore the nonhumans that are also part of the complex kaleidoscope of social relations and urban metabolisms. (Which point gives me the excuse to nod towards Helsinki’s Sustainability Science Days last week, where we enjoyed a viewing of Matthew Gandy’s wonderful documentary, Natura Urbana, about Berlin and its politically generated ecology).
By concentrating on built form, the Kenen Kaupunki? pamphlet turns a messy reality into a compelling and important story. It also opens up the terrain for wider and deeper treatment of the issues, and for different approaches.
Understandably its authority lies largely in the writers’ and publishers’ professional status and appeals to international treaties on cultural heritage and interpretations of planning law and policy. Hence the many references to how decision making has run roughshod over cultural heritage values, policy on historic buildings (weak as it is in Finland), and so on. Several chapters are about the histories of the old, largely 19th century, buildings still here for us to enjoy, low-rise, wooden and appreciated not just by the connoisseur but by all of us who live here.
The expert-lay divide matters here, because the city’s built form, which is overseen by the planning system and architects, is everybody’s world. No wonder they can tend towards the arrogant, their work concerns nothing less than the environment in which we Helsinkians dwell. Bearing this in mind, the rather social angle in the pamphlet is a welcome exception in Finnish architectural discourse, I would say. It also addresses another Helsinki blind-spot, the way our troubles are connected to world-wide issues.
For it is the case that people around the world, in many social movements, are spending inordinate energies simply preserving what they love and need, in the global North (a shrinking German town, say) as much as the South (as environmental defenders, say). Heritage is shared and extends beyond individual stories, and so gives meaning to place and to life. It grounds shared future horizons. Writing about heritage as a current issue, the pamphlet has already encouraged a lively local debate.
The thing is, the city (of Helsinki) is an experience. But this is not the brief encounter you can sell to a tourist, nor is it the nicely formatted spatial configurations created by today’s huge urban development projects. Like any city worth the visit – for tourist or other – Helsinki is above all made up of people who are committed to being here rather than somewhere else.
What is so great about the pamphlet is how it is inspiring people to share diverse ways of knowing and breathing life into the city. These are out there in letters to and copy in newspapers, online discussions and countless exchanges people are having in their daily encounters. It’s also the case that Helsinki is becoming big enough and its people perhaps self-confident enough, that there is room for many Helsinkis (as we put it with Cindy and the contributors to our book back in 2015). Different people and different publics make visible different aspects of Helsinki.
I’m hoping to see more stories of people valuing Helsinki simply because it is our home, whether ancestral (which in Helsinki means about three generations) or recent. These stories aren’t opposed to those of architectural historians, but they are different. Importantly, they are not the stories of the “demands” made by large-scale development companies or retail conglomerates. When city leaders cosying up to big money talk about supply and demand, they are talking about the need for big companies to make profits and please their shareholders. Meanwhile we Helsinkians need accessible and affordable places to live, but we also need beautiful and meaningful surroundings, to support everyday life and to nurture our physical, social and mental health. We need places like the Lapinlahti former asylum (above), frequently discussed on this blog and one of the cases in the pamphlet.
Delightfully, the complex development situation with Lappari, as I call it, was also a topic taken up in a panel debate in anticipation of those elections. In that discussion the debate did not, I’m pleased to report, get flattened into the lazy binary – for versus against – that the city and too many developers tend towards.
Thank you to the creators! Kenen Kaupunki? helps us non-experts be bolder about our demands for good living in our cherished city and for everyone to start debating with more depth and breadth.
I was trained in ethnography and that generally involves walking, whether or not you make it into a ‘thing’. As I find myself doing just that, I find inspiration in many places.
Walking artists, those attentive noticers, continue to influence me. It’s a roundabout and amateur relationship. There’s Richard Long and his Lines Made by Walking from 1967, and Marina Abramovich and her (and her partner’s) The Great Wall Walk, plus the many contemporary British authors with a liking for the pedestrian life, like Ian Sinclair and Will Self, or comedian Doon Mackichan. And then there’s been the Walking Artists Network. Their blog (not sure if it’s being updated) and other resources are available through this link. Helsinki colleagues have developed urban hitchhiking. And then of course there is Morag Rose, of the wonderful artists collective, LRM or Loiterers’ Resistance Movement.
Geographers, empirically minded sociologists with a penchant for deep hanging out, and anthropologists walk and often reflect on it. Those with an interest in landscapes and how they are shaped tend to be attentive to how steps, human and other, create pathways. Environmental historians and the walking thinkers they have written about, like the 18th-century Gilbert White, also go on my list. Urban walkers, flaneurs, Situationists and others likewise.
Below, a few favourite references from other places.
I have to begin with Tim Ingold whose work blew my mind when I was struggling to make toxic waste a material concern while writing my doctorate. My go-to introduction to some key ideas would be Ingold, T. (2000 ) ‘The temporality of the landscape’, in his collection of essays, The Perception of the Environment: Essays in livelihood, dwelling and skill [also in World Archaeology, Vol.25, 1993.] More about walking can also be found in Ingold T (2011) Being Alive: Essays on movement, knowledge and description. New York: Routledge and Ingold, T. (2009) ‘Against Space: Place, Movement, Knowledge’, in Kirby, P. W. (ed.) Boundless Worlds: An Anthropological Approach to Movement. And of course there’s the volume, Ingold, T., & Vergunst, J. L. (Eds) (2008) Ways of walking: Ethnography and practice on foot. Ashgate.
In close conversation with Ingold: Árnason, A., N. Ellison, J. Vergunst and A. Whitehouse (eds) (2012) Landscapes Beyond Land: Routes, Aesthetics, Narratives. Berghahn, and for instance Jo Vergunst & Arnar Árnason (2012) ‘ Introduction: Routing Landscape: Ethnographic Studies of Movement and Journeying’, Landscape Research, Vol. 37, Number 2, 147 – 154. Chris Tilley, Tim Edensor and Thomas Widlock are also in this company.
(I need work on the gender imbalance here. Flaneuses and decolonizing flaneuses, in particular, surely offer leads for finding improved understandings and ways of walking.)
Much of the scholarship mentioned above draws on phenomenological thought, highlighting the need to appreciate what links activity, movement in particular, to surroundings. In that way, obliquely at least, it gently draws attention to the accelerated tempos and associated troubles of capitalist modernity (or whatever concept one might want to use – I hope you understand). Following Martin Heidegger, this work also critiques the tendency to celebrate dwelling and stasis. At times it (inadvertently?) appears to celebrate it.
A wonderful book, not so much about walking, but a pioneering collection that’s probably influenced many walking folks, is the 1996 volume edited by Steven Feld and Keith Basso, Senses of Place. Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press. I can see in my mind’s eye exactly where and how Widsom Sits in Places!
A more recent growing literature and practice puts the emphasis on decolonizing thought. This makes for a different starting point or rather way of walking with leading to a thinking with (these are almost technical concepts). As you might expect, Australia’s colonial history is furnishing us with ample examples such work, for instance, Springgay, Stephanie and Sarah E. Truman (2018) Walking methodologies in a more-than-human world: WalkingLab. Routledge, developing explicitly feminist-queer, anti-racist, anti-ableist, and anti-colonial walking.
This then leads me to how walking as a methodology can be linked to fears for sustainability and to the language of the Anthropocene. Below a rather random selection, reports, articles and such. As part of a wider concern to educate the senses, these endorse a walking pace and perspective, on foot, in a wheelchair or in some other slow mode, in the company of artists, scientists, “lay people”and others.
Van Dooren, Thom, Eben Kirksey, and Ursula Münster. “Multispecies Studies Cultivating Arts of Attentiveness.” Environmental Humanities 8.1 (2016): 1-23, is a review of the methodological challenges of doing research in emergent environments and also of the key conceptual resources from neo-materialist or vitalist thought. An earlier text that doesn’t labour these theoretical issues in the environmental humanities so, is Eernstman Natalia & Arjen EJ Wals (2013) Locative Meaning-making: An Arts-based Approach to Learning for Sustainable Development, Sustainability, Vol.5(4), 1645-1660; doi:10.3390/su5041645.
In this kind of work, the dynamism of walking and the apparent stasis of tools like maps are getting reconfigured – hopefully in order to generate robust evidence for (environmental) policy makers. (If and as this happens, I hope myself to contribute to ways to better understand pedestrian experience among technical infrastructures, at all stages of their manufacture and use, from mines to cables to phones in our pockets.)
Perhaps in this embarrassment of riches there is a typology of ways of walking worth developing. Maybe that’s already been done. You may well know about it. If you do, I’d love to know.
In any case, the deliberate pedestrian turns out to be enduringly peculiar as well as peculiarly enduring. That figure is indeed an invitation to pay better attention a world like ours, inimical in so many ways, to caring about what’s around.
Some weeks before formerly taken-for-granted pleasures like classroom teaching began to be curtailed, I sent an abstract to an ERC/UEF conference on sensory methodologies, for a paper I called ‘Meandering in modern landscapes’. I thought of it as a sympathetic critique of sensory methods. I imagined that I could base at least some of it on walks I would do with students in the Design Department at Aalto over the spring of 2020.
Instead, in the past months I have mostly walked with like-minded friends and I have read about walking. Fortunately I did get to walk with Lucy Davis, intrepid enquirer into migrantecologies and member of the Art Department at Aalto University, whose students have been doing a lot of walking recently, as I’ll explain below.
When I sent in my paper abstract last spring, I was particularly concerned with the way sensory research can slip into ‘romanticism’. I had noted that not everyone who is extolling the virtues of embodied and slow methods like walking has the (anthropologists’) luck of being familiar with the endless variety of ways that humans can arrange but also experience their worlds. Celebrating the human body and one’s own senses can, namely, lead to simplifying and parochial habits, like talking about human experience as if it were a transparent thing. I worried that sensory methods can forget one of the key lessons of the anthropology of the senses: the senses are made, not given (David Howes 2019).
This important lesson (that human life is culturally constructed) has been forgotten or, more exactly not appreciated, by many environmentalists. We European green types still channel heroic efforts from 200 years ago even, to get in touch with the most awesome aspects of nature in solitude, as if climbing up a rugged mountain were a route to universal insight. The standard example is Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog. A typical experience of the sublime, I was indulging in it a few weekends ago here in Helsinki, with Lucy and Guy Julier, see the photo below. What a lovely afternoon we had. But though this kind of communing is rewarding, readers may know that it has been eloquently critiqued by William Cronon and other environmental historians.
Sensory methods can also limit inquiry to the small scale and the low-tech. If, like me, you are interested in landscapes and lifeways that are largely shaped by capital-intensive digital infrastructures, that is a shortcoming.
In research around environmental politics more generally, turning away from the large-scale technical structures and related forms of mess left by modernity (to borrow from Kim Fortun), leads to dead ends, I think.
Where changing the world (for the greener) is part of one’s motivation for working on better research methods, there’s even a danger that disciplines favouring sensory methods (anthropology and design are those that I know) may become irrelevant if they mainly indulge in and celebrate our embodied experience. After all, to respond to real and shared threats like a heating climate, we unambiguously need seriously sophisticated extensions of the human senses – technoscientific apparatuses of one kind or another.
My immediate environment and those pesky global processes
Several critical voices, Alf Hornborg among them (e.g. here), are pointing out these problems. It’s fine to attend to the “sensory, perceptual engagement of humans with their immediate environment”. But those scholars promoting sensory methods, while also extolling the arts and critiquing academia as Tim Ingold has been known to do (e.g. in this paper), can end up downplaying “the abstract territory of global political economy” (from Hornborg). But it is this which has created the conditions we (sic) now experience as problematic. Power politics, from the most discursive (elite talk, say) to the most materially embodied (the production and consumption of digital devices, say) “increasingly constrain most humans from experiencing the world in the way Ingold advocates”, Hornborg writes.
By my reading, this would include the extra-linguistic involvements of sensory (or multimodal) methodologies and the emotional rewards of, say, climbing up snowy artificial hillsides with like-minded colleagues, as I did with Lucy and Guy.
There is also the problem that enquiry involving affect-saturated sensory methods will fail to connect with the hegemonic, often (digital-)data-driven, knowledge practices of those with the greatest technical and economic power, on the other.
A similar problem was picked up some time ago by my colleague, Cindy Kohtala, in a different context, sustainable design. (Her blog post should be compulsory reading for all who are going into that field.)
In it Cindy took aim at manifesto-like mainstream publications gushing about how lovely are the grassroots initiatives seeking alternatives to destructive practices. She exhorted junior researchers, perhaps themselves involved in those initiatives, to get out there and study the world beyond them. She also advised researchers to be precise about what sustainability means in their work. Specifically, she encouraged being clear about what one is studying, the “‘sustainability’ of a system, or participants’ beliefs about the sustainability of the system”.
Here, I suppose, is the core of my discomfort. While capital-intensive infrastructures and toxic relationships of all kinds continue to be rolled out through business-as-usual, creating patchy anthropocene landscapes around the world, as Anna Tsing’s research team argues, can sensory research engage in non-trivial ways with the design of collective futures? Isn’t it in constant danger of confusing beliefs and hopes on one side with actual processes on the other?
But wandering is often also wondering
Well, from my reading around the topic recently, beliefs and hopes, but more importantly, narratives, compose knowledge anyway. We all tell stories, including engineers, scientists and financiers. The infrastructure projects that have created the landscapes we now call home – the Vuosaari landfill, the international port next to it, the massive and rather recent transport infrastructure that dominates the route we walked – are all also the result of competitive storytelling.
And even as we all use our bodies, we all rely on technical apparatuses for knowing. I guess I’m trying to say that even as we use those apparatuses or draw on our specialist expertise, a kind of eclecticism and superficiality is always part of learning. It’s nurtured in particularly acute ways when you’re walking, and particularly walking with others. Everything is up to be focussed on, to be questioned and even marvelled at, whether natural or artificial.
So I’ve turned around on myself before even having written up that ‘sympathetic critique of sensory methods’, to say, we need it the walking and the sensory as well as the technologically mediated knowledge. We need it all!
Let’s then continue with the walking, the multimodal research, the burying ourselves into others’ texts, the conversations with the experts on whatever particular site concerns us at any given time.
Next to Vuosaari’s new-ish port is also one of my favourite industrial buildings, Paulig coffee roastery. This ensemble is a handy visualization of globalization and its materiality – the port and railway taking stuff coming and going, the roastery fuelling our bodies with the energies needed to sustain lives as we have come to know them and bringing colonialism right into our very bodies on a daily basis…
So, Lucy also sent her students up the hill on what no doubt became quite fun ambulatory explorations. The thing is, she had given them very fine company: art historical perspectives on animals at Medieval religious sites, Eero Hyvönen, a local journalist who gave a talk, the Feral Atlas and Robin Wall Kimmerer. Lucy’s course is Art &/in Ecology, in the Art department, not in environmental politics. Yet I found the materials she shared from her teaching absolutely enthralling and totally germane to my own efforts to understand environmental conflict and management.
To those companions for the students, in a zoom lecture I added my own thoughts about how layers of history have been materialized in today’s Vuosaari. I also shared some of what we learned a few years ago when, with the Narratiimi collective, we did several walks in the area. We put particular emphasis on the beauty of walking together: side by side, walkers may come from different places but they are, for a while at least, moving towards and looking at the same thing. Makes for mutual understanding as well as opening up opportunities to learn from each other.
I hope I get to discuss the students’ walk or hike, and to learn how it has affected their explorations of Helsinki’s urban ecologies. To that end I have invited myself to tomorrow’s online session.
One of the students last week asked me if I’ve written about walking. Well, no, I’ve not. Hence, in part, this blog post. But lots of people have written about walking – in many, many ways. I will do a part II of this blog in the form of a short list of references. For now I’ll mention two new books. Both are about walking in the city and both contribute in important ways to filling out new, better, non-trivial narratives.
Cindy (mentioned above) gave me Matthew Beaumont’s (2020) The walker: on finding and losing yourself in the modern city. This is a great book of wandering and wondering, words and steps, navigating mostly English-language literature on urban walking. It draws generously from many writers and teaches, without being stolid or didactic, about pedestrian life and its value(s).
The other is Samuel Alexander and Brendan Gleeson’s Urban Awakenings: Disturbance and Enchantment in the Industrial City, Melbourne in fact. Reaching across the divide that is pre-Covid and post-Covid, their ability to walk a city so designed for other modes of being is quite remarkable.
A relevant insight towards the start of their book, which serves as an endorsement to develop sensory experience more, not less, is this: “everyday modern life conspires remorselessly to stultify human sensibility and insight” (p. 32). Part of my teaching task will thus be making effort to counter this.
I wonder if I ever will write at length about walking, as sympathetic critic or otherwise. If I did, this quotation, from environmental historians Henrik Ernstson and Sverker Sörlin (eds) Grounding Urban Natures: Histories and Futures of Urban Ecologies published in 2019, would be a good starting point.
“If there is anything that the rich traditions of urban studies, critical environmental studies, and environmental history has shown, it is that place and time matter for how things play out.”
Over the holidays my colleague, expert on social enterprise Eeva Houtbeckers and I both reacted to the same opinion piece in a Finnish newspaper.
The letter we reacted to had a provocative headline. It exhorted young people to “work for the environment, protest doesn’t help”. The letter by turn was a response to earlier editorial content on environmental fears and activism among young people. The paper has recently written rather sympathetically about activism, for instance about Extinction Rebellion. The movement gained new visibility in Finland in October, when its activists were peppersprayed by the police after they refused to stop blocking a busy street. The event provoked considerable debate about policing.
My disagreement stems from a political conviction, but also from having studied social movements on and off for the last thirty years. They very much do change the world.
Here’s our response:
Markku Metsäranta (K&k 17.12.) encourages young people to solve our epoch’s terrifying threats by pursuing familiar modern paths. He mentions science, engineering, enterprise, parliamentarianism and progress.
The letter’s concluding claim – decision makers are totally dependent on enterprise – is partly true. Economic growth has been made synonymous with progress and is said to guarantee social peace.
At the same time, we forget or ignore how many different ways there have been over the centuries to organize life on this human-friendly planet. But as progress became reduced to economic growth, our imagination was narrowed.
From such a perspective, enterprise does appears like the foundation of many things and it seems it is best served by engineers and scientists, marketing and financial professionals. Social enterprises is also on the rise, but it is more of an accommodation than a challenge.
In the lives of the young people, who protest by sitting on the streets or going on school strike, and whose lives are affected by affected by the slowdown in economic growth that predates the pandemic, this recipy for progress is outdated. It is not possible for them to continue as before, or to deny the ever more palpable ecological crisis.
For that reason, our message to youth would be quite different: we value your energy and activism, we hear your imagination-expanding activism, which brings comfort. After all, though we have been taught to worship enterprise, we know that at the end of the day that is not what we depend on.
We also both discovered, somewhat to our surprise, that we actually read this “free” paper published by the Lutheran (State) Church in Finland. It is still delivered, on paper, to (tax-paying) members.