Social ecology and the right to the city

COVID changes everything

Before COVID19 became a pandemic, I proposed to the Finnish Journal of Urban Studies, the only professional publication in Finland dedicated to urban research and spatial planning, that I write a review for them (in Finnish) of this book.

Soc Ecology and Right to the City cover

I’m working on it. Here, some English-language thoughts.

The book reflects on the injustices of urban lives in the early 21st century, seeing today’s crises as socio-ecological in nature – the social and the ecological always deeply entwined. In pandemic-struck April 2020, it would be hard to deny the entanglement of the natural and the political. It would be impossible to deny that even urbanites are also animals, human animals, susceptible to mega-scale nuisance and avoidable human tragedy caused by very, very, very small things. The shock is the extent of the trouble even in societies with spectacular technological capacity.

In social ecology terms, this is no shock, though. As an interdisciplinary field with a history, social ecology has been exploring ways to promote social and ecological diversity for decades, and looking for ways to turn around the tendency to simplify landscapes everywhere. Social ecology, less technically understood, is also an approach to planning for the future that puts relationships of dependency at the centre.

So, if everything is now up for grabs, and even the end of capitalism is printable in polite company (e.g. in this post on The Slowdown Papers), a field like social ecology is a place to go and learn. This book speaks to those concerned specifically with cities, where the aggravations of ecological and social crises are particularly intense.

The longer legacy of social ecology makes it impossible, however, to approach “the urban” or “the city” without considering its complement, “the rural” or “the countryside”. I was particularly keen to see this book because I am so frustrated with the amnesia here in Finland about the ties that bind us Helsinkians and other urbanites to the forests and smaller towns beyond. Our province is currently under lockdown but that doesn’t make us an island. Animals that we are, the borders now closed to human travellers are still open to food and medical supplies. (A theme to pursue in another post.)

What is below, was written some weeks ago and temporarily forgotten about, but as the situation continues, social ecology will surely offer evidence of and ideas for new normals to build after this great pause is over.

Social Ecology and the Right to the City: Towards Ecological and Democratic Cities, edited by Federico Venturini, Emet Değirmenci and Inés Morales – a review

The key message is that ecology and urban democracy are part of the same story. All 14 diverse chapters by thinkers and activists share that starting point.

For full disclosure, let me note that I was particularly curious about the book because it includes a chapter by my friend and former colleague Brian Morris about a key inspiration for the volume, Murray Bookchin. According to Morris, Bookchin who died in 2006, has been overlooked by academics. Yet, Morris writes, he “offers the only real solution to the immense social and ecological problems that confront us” (p.12).

Indeed, I read Bookchin in the 1980s and 1990s. Recent democratic and local assembly experiments, for example in Kurdistan, have brought him back into at least some conversations. Bookchin explored how capitalism has tendency to simplify landscapes in the process of plundering it for resources, often to fuel comforts in cities.

Animals of a special kind

Concerned with the flourishing of human and other lifeforms, he oriented himself towards maintaining what he called the restorative powers of nature and humanity. He saw this task as social ecology – as in the book’s title. Bookchin’s understanding of the relationship between ecological and human exploitation was rooted in what Morris calls his philosophical naturalism. Part of this perspective was an insistence that humans are a product of organic evolution. We are animals, if of a very special kind. This way of framing nature and humans also underpins his argument that we can develop a politics (even a way of living) that involves neither “communing with the spirit world (mysticism), nor the technocratic solutions offered within the current capitalist system” (in Morris’ chapter, p. 12).

The rest of Social Ecology and the Right to the City travels through a variety of theoretical and empirical resources to return over and over again to the multiple crises of contemporary capitalism. The whole demonstrates a strong sensibility nicely captured in one of the endorsements by Sutapa Chattopadhay, who sees it as responding to the rise of “hostile and narcissistic policies”.

Some brief comments then on those contributions that most elaborate on how this is exacerbating the problematic disconnections between urban and environmental thought.

The aim of the work as a whole is to deepen discussions of “the right to the city, spatial justice and social ecology” to support “urban social movements aiming towards ecological and democratic cities” (P.86). So writes Federico Venturini – an activist-researcher with a PhD in philosophy and first editor.

Though informed by scholarship, the book is explicitly activist, arising largely out of the work of people involved in The Transnational Institute of Social Ecology, who discussed these issues at a conference in Thessaloniki in 2017. The authors clearly have an acute awareness of inequalities, as well as practical and theoretical knowledge about urban and political processes. The variation in style and content of the texts affirm the editors’ claim that the volume is an undisciplined production.

Societycide, not just ecocide

Its critique is certainly strident, and will appeal to some for that reason. Perhaps it will put off others. Those may include all who remain“under a spell”, as Olli Tammilehto puts it in his chapter, of taking what is [was?] around us as normal. The predominant tone of the book is closer to the Kurdish activist Abdullah Öcalan, who brought Bookchin into the struggles over Kurdish futures. According to Havin Guneser and Eleanor Finley’s chapter, Öcalan refers to what has been happening as societycide, not just ecocide.

Though diverse, all the chapters take a close-to-the-ground perspective on politics that, as an anthropologist, I appreciate. This becomes quite concrete in the final two chapters, whose authors aply demonstrate that the contemporary city is best understood on foot. Also, longstanding social ecologist, Daniel Chodorkoff makes explicit his debt to anthropology for understanding different types of leadership and ways of organising human existence. He returns at the end of his theoretical text to what this means for contemporary urban life, the politics unfolding where we live, in our neighbourhoods, in assemblies, town meetings and other democratic experiments. His chapter is one of many in the book, which makes positive reference to recent anarchist experiments, but Chodorkoff wants to push them further. For instance, he wants permanent autonomous zones, not just temporary autonomous zones.

The chapters also vary with respect to who they see as most active in claiming rights to the city. A number offer rather optimistic if not romantic visions of widespread potential for political mobilisation. Although it is hard to disagree with the depiction of contemporary (“successful”) cities as dead ends of a sort – aseptic, reduced to arenas of capitalist competition, perhaps no longer even cities – the forces reasserting these worrying trends are huge, and the resistance is probably not as widespread as the book makes out. Many urban activist initiatives, after all, fall far short of mentioning let alone denouncing capitalism as the source of their troubles. Still, as informed and critical commentary on what currently passes for urban development and attractive visions of the future, the book has some delightful contents.

In particular, in a chapter titled Is the Right to the City Are Right or a Revolution? Magauli Fricaudet offers a theoretically informed take on urban growth and its impacts, for example how they exploit nature, intensify the power of international elites and normalise financialisation.

The theoretical inspirations are mainly Henri Lefebvre and David Harvey in addition to Bookchin, with appearances by Eleanor Ostrom and, to a lesser extent, Saskia Sassen. Her book on Expulsions would offer a framework for putting together the types of extractivism, appropriation, rent seeking and other, often parasitic, urban activities that current mainstream debate confuses with wealth creation.

Sometimes the authors indulge in problematic generalisations and make over-stretched claims. Regardless, I do commend its ambition to go well beyond critiques of today’s [make that at least in part yesterday’s, from this April 2020 perspective] frenetic but resisted capitalism. Authors consider often overlooked types of state power, for instance as it has developed and is evolving in China (Metin Guven), and latent tendencies in society that perhaps do herald more optimistic times (Olli Tammilehto).

Towards really asking what’s important

Rewriting my final two paragraphs in April I return to my friend Brian Morris. He writes that Bookchin and, I believe, by extention social ecological narratives generally, have always understood that besides being animal, humans are intrinsically social beings, not autonomous possessive egos. We [sic] do not, by any criteria, “need” Wall Street or its everyday manifestation, shiny new shopping centres (Tripla, below, from a before-and-after-COVID19 story in Helsingin Sanomat).

Tripla 20.3.2020

Mutual dependencies between towns and hinterlands are then newly visible. So is the fact that humans need humans. No longer does one need to be a romantic to recognize and applaud mutual dependency and human contact at very local level. Nor does it any longer require quite as much imagination or radical thought to appreciate that ubiquitous capital-intensive technology does not prevent me or you from being human as well as natural/animal. Perhaps with COVID19 social ecology will flourish anew, strengthened further by attending to the urban and the Right to the City.

 

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