It’s all urban environments now

From a wilderness island

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…”

(Villistadi n.d.)

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.

Sailing around Eastern Helsinki’s suburbs in 2021

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.

A pipe, a path and some poorly bilberries, June 2021

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.

Boot, wheelbarrow and hoofprints August 2021

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.

Kalasatama, Helsinki, September 2021

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.

I noted that on our island paradise the animals are getting closer and closer to us humans because, as Anna Tsing has pointed out in this relevant dialogue with Donna Haraway, they are displaced, have nowhere else to go. Indeed, ever closer encounters of animals and humans are demanding more and more attention, and increasingly in the city as well.

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.

Hetherington, Kregg. 2019. Infrastructure, environment, and life in the Anthropocene. Durham: Duke University Press.

Rupprecht, C. D., Vervoort, J., Berthelsen, C., Mangnus, A., Osborne, N., Thompson, K., … & Kawai, A. (2020). Multispecies sustainability. Global Sustainability, 3.

Whyte, Kyle (2018) Critical Investigations of Resilience: A Brief Introduction to Indigenous Environmental Studies & Sciences, Daedalus 147:2, 136-147,

And, though I have not received my hard copy yet, Max Liboiron’s (2021) Pollution is colonialism. Duke University Press, whose introduction I found online.

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