Not quite an anthropology of the good, just some reflections on being creative and comfortable in Helsinki

Living sustainably isn’t easy when you’re rich

As I write, all who live in Europe must know that we are living climate change. Perhaps this also presages more recruits to the many initiatives of prefiguring more climate-sane and equitable futures.

Like so many of us engaged with environmentalism and other social movements, I struggle to assess and evaluate the role of the countless creative activists whose efforts sustain them and whose work I’ve been following with admiration and interest for the last decade and more. It’s just that their being so wealthy means that however activist and green they are, and however great the ideas they are promoting (like Dodo’s Megapolis events, below, 2009), they/we are still a problem.


In Helsinki you can only have a sustainable lifestyle if you are homeless. For the rest of us, our homes and our engineered surroundings, built to serve consumer pleasures or, rather, industrial capitalism over decades and centuries, undo any efforts at sustainability. This contradiction cannot, however, be grounds for criticising environmentalists in wealthy places, even if the activism alternates with shopping as in the picture above.

A recent report by colleagues, 1.5. Degree Lifestyles: Targets and options for reducing lifestyle carbon footprints, makes clear that becoming a “sustainable civilisation” requires massive shifts in those infrastructures. But the authors also argue that it needs, as they call it, “a groundswell of actions from individuals and households”. Less driving and flying, more vegetable-based diet and, as I view it, probably more convivial hanging out. Also, quite a bit of collective experimentation.

This, by the way, is what is on display in the Finnish pavilion (also the handiwork of good colleagues) of the XXII Triennale di Milano opening tomorrow. The somewhat alarming title of the show is Broken Nature: Design Takes on Human Survival. As ever, I hesitate at the idea that the required humongous reduction in resource exploitation will be spearheaded by people who, as the website puts it, can quip that as human extintion looms, design makes for a more elegant ending…

Yet it also suggests the opposite: the so-called creative classes have been cossetted over the last three decades in economic and urban policy. If they don’t launch themselves into sustainability, how can anyone else in the over-consuming global North do so?

So I find that I keep being interested in the comfortably off – my own “bubble”, if you like. Already as an aspiring anthropologist embarking on doctoral research in the early 1990s, my academic work was about ordinary people in an ordinary place. Later I’ve come to think that I’m eternally curious about the weirdness of the MN or “Modern Normal.

At least in climate terms, “normal” produces “disastrous”. So, we need more research on what this “disastrous” “normal” consists of and what sustains it.

Cue lots of wonderful, great research on grassroots activism that is a struggle to keep up with (or classify sensibly).

The comfortable slot

Although you could talk of a comfortable bubble, I’ve started to think about activists in Germany, the UK and Finland, as being part of the “comfortable slot”. It’s a structural thing.

I’ve been playing with the concept in seminar papers. I use it in a chapter I wrote for a book edited by Francisco Martinez and Patrick Laviolette, due out in a few months, on practices of repair. The book tackles this topical theme through ethnographic analyses of the failures, gaps, wrongdoings and leftovers that are inspiring so much creative research (e.g. discard studies, or social studies of waste, pollution and externalities).

The idea of social arrangements and relations being reduced to a “slot” derives, in a roundabout way, from Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s famous (1991) critique of the kind of society that could produce anthropology. He pointed out that anthropology had established itself as a discipline by contrasting an Other, the “savage slot”, with a politically far-from-innocent Self. This was the Christian European “slot” that claims descent from a Golden Age of Greek Civilization, and still models normality as male, white and property owning.

Then, in a much-cited paper from 2013 Joel Robbins observed that something like a “suffering slot” had been shaping the discipline. Later still, Sherry B. Ortner (2016) framed recent anthropology as overwhelmingly preoccupied with the “dark side” of neoliberalism.

She also notes Robbins’ call for an “anthropology of the good … focussed on such topics as value, morality, well-being, imagination, empathy, care, the gift, hope, time, and change” (quoted in Ortner 2016: 58). Many activists that I know could be described as members not just of the European slot but of the most comfortable among them, and still trying to live up to these values.

So my chapter in Repair, Brokenness, Breakthrough looks at how ordinary people living ordinary lives in ordinary places are compulsively drawn to repairing the damages brought about by decades and centuries of ordinary industrial capitalism. Or, of the Modern Normal.

Vegan junk food makes a point

On the corner of a small park is a “peaked” kiosk, an icon of Helsinki’s summer months, which used to sell sweets and ice creams. For some time, many of these kiosks were unused. These days, those that are in use are run on short-term leases and often by what you might call entrepreneurial neighbourhood activists.

In 2016, this kiosk got a new identity. Called Jänö (bunny), it began to serve unhealthy vegan food. By serving unhealthy vegan food, it punctured expectations that vegans would be as self-righteous about their health as about their world-saving (both silly prejudices). More seriously, Jänö reused an existing building, putting into practice at a small-scale but in a symbolically significant way, the principle of renovating and reusing rather than tearing down to make way for something new. The business model was an unusual mix of crowd-funding through social media channels and conventional bank loans, involving, I imagine, considerable expertise in the legal structures of co-operative enterprise.

Jänö by GJ May 2018

May 2018. Photo by Guy Julier.

I’m not sure who will be running it this year, but I look forward to another summer of liveliness and quirkiness.

Jänö really highlights the contrast between the massive scale of city-sponsored development and “city making” at the grassroots level.

Material environmentalism of everyday life

What’s so interesting is that Helsinki’s most comfortable slot could be expected to just sit back and relax, live their lives and rely on government and the businesses it supports to sustain their comforts. But many clearly aren’t. They may not be protesting so much in the streets (though they appear to be doing more of that too) as protesting through action, by prefiguring. Some vehemently deny that they are protesting. They are just doing stuff.

They are not the “social wildlife” of squats (vilified in Finland, but also admired for their political imagination), or of the early anti-globalisation protests that “respectable society” complained about in the 1990s. More likely they are those with “post-material values” more focused on quality of life than quantity of stuff.

David Schlosberg and Romand Coles coined a term for this: new materialist movements. It’s a varied, dynamic and growing type of environmentalist action. It involves people who are no longer “willing to take part in unsustainable practices and institutions, and not satisfied with purely individualistic and consumer responses”, and more likely to be restructuring everyday practices of circulation: they eat local and low-carbon, prefer cycling, like repairing and making. They aren’t passive consumers, but active participants and avid fans of DIY.

One area in Helsinki that is increasingly relevant in talking of material flows and views of the good life, is the built environment. The conflicts over landscape change (high-rise building), population targets, land use and the sustainability (or not) of today’s construction sector are currently very much on the agenda (as noted here, in Finnish).

Here too, the comfortably off have an important role. And here too, my hunch is that the contradictions hit people personally: architects may be forced to work for big construction to make a living, and still lend their expertise to promoting alternatives. More on this, anon, I hope.

Hundreds of flowers blooming for now

After it ceased operating as a hospital, Lapinlahti old mental asylum spent some years looking very drab.

Thanks to the efforts of alliances of activists from creative and variously comfortable slots, it has now become self-organising world of artists, mental health professionals and associations and of different kinds of sustainable initiatives. One is Restaurant Loop, which I warmly recommend. Together they have made piecemeal improvements to the historic buildings. They serve mental and physical wellbeing, support creative labour and delight us citizens who get to enjoy its beautiful architecture and social vibrancy. I wrote about it almost exactly two years ago on the blog.

As a funky film made by its tenants shows, it is a space of hundreds of flowers blooming. It would be a fabulous place to do an ethnographic study of Robbins’ anthropology of the good in the 21st century.

Alas, the city is making their lives difficult. Current tenants are apparently to be out of the building by the summer. The city is now looking for an entity with an idea for the buildings – as well as the corporate and financial clout to realise that idea in practice.

The city of Helsinki can only apparently imagine business-as-usual for Lapinlahti: run by a single corporate entity with a strong brand and heroic vision. They appear blind to its multiple functions, organic social networks and above all the amazing way the current tenants continue its long tradition of caring for us all by caring for the vulnerable.

Why? Because the city is obliged to make a profit on the buildings it owns.

A municipality also has many other obligations.

To make those obligations have weight and to really counter the disastrous modern normal, which has its eye on economic growth above all else, is taking a lot of work. But  it is happening. The more the “comfortable slot” participates in building climate-sane and equitable futures, the more quickly I suspect the necessary changes are likely to happen.

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