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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.

Immaterial? Gadgets?

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.

Fading tradition?

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.)

Kajaani, November 2021

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.

Verkkosaari walk – October 2021. Photo by Alicia Ng.

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).

Anthropocene mess as anthropogenic mass

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.

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. http://doi.org/10.1215/9781478002567.

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, https://doi.org/10.1162/DAED_a_00497

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.

Clearly more-than-human

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 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.

Clearly human

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”.

For my doctorate I studied people who were, as I saw it, bold enough to protest and be “rude” about the damage. I still grapple with many of the same questions that emerged there. My intellectual world, for example the Finnish Society for Environmental Social Sciences or the lively circles I was lucky enough to move in at UC Berkeley in the late 1990s, is not just of professional interest, but also a resource to help me stay sane. It has helped me cope with the cognitive dissonances that arise from knowing that one is contributing to the damage.

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 Nature anyway.

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.

To wit, in the archipelago one appreciates that human and more-than-human worlds are mutually entangled and interdependent. For instance, the cultural landscape of a place like the Isokari lighthouse island, above.

Sure, it is more-than-human. But right now I am a little frustrated by the attention that’s not being given to the human, that is, the political, in research.

To be continued.

City life thrives on pamphlets and manifestos, like the 1970 classic, Kenen Helsinki? or Whose Helsinki, which arguably prevented wholesale demolition of many places Helsinkians still love.

We just got another pamphlet.

Kenen Kaupunki? Helsingin Kaupunkisuunnittelu ja kulttuuriympäristö törmäyskurssilla – Whose City? Helsinki urban planning and cultural heritage on a collision course (my translation) – was published this spring.

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.

It’s not just the buildings people oppose, it’s how they will block out the sky and slowly suffocate life at street level. The pamphlet is in fact refreshingly alert to the pedestrian experience of a place. This is a welcome feature in its architectural approach, it is after all, jointly published by Docomomo Finland, Icomos, the Finnish Association of Architects SAFA and the society for built heritage (my translation).

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.

Being critical

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.

Vuosaaren huippu January 2021 with colleagues

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.

Place and time matter for how things play out

Vuosaari, with its curious but not unique landfill-turned-recreational-area (landfills have long been turned into destinations), has now inspired me as well as Lucy and her students.

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.”

Pretty much on a daily basis I consider writing a letter to the editor of a newspaper. On e-scooters. I am saddened frankly, at how quickly they have transformed the rules on sharing space.

Just as I was beginning to believe that the selfish car-based road usage typical for Helsinki might be on its way out, e-scooters put wheels back to work for #individuals-in-a-hurry.

Many years ago (2005), I wrote about the scarily large vehicles that were then beginning to clog up many streets around me, then known as 4-by-4s (‘citymaasturi’ in my mother tongue). Even back then I was inspired by George Monbiot (who wrote about them again last year). SUVs, or Sports Utility Vehicles, are now normal. Heavier, more dangerous to other road users, and gluttonous devourers of materials and fuel (as the IEA has told us), choosing one must seem natural to some, despite these anti-social impacts.

My complaint is that whether parked or on the go, these high and mighty successes of marketing block road space and mental space that could be open to more public spirited uses. SUVs don’t just take up large amounts of parking space. They are very BIG, and even seem to block out the light.

So I had to go and see the exhibition at Espoo’s EMMA by Elmgreen & Dragset titled 2020, which takes a new look at cars and storing them. I was not disappointed.

EMMA’s gallery space works brilliantly as a spoof car park. An essay on the website spells out more. It includes the important point that “[m]ore than most other design objects, cars can reveal a lot about the power structures in our society.”

The exhibition is open until 17.01.2021.

EMMA is in a repurposed printing press – beautiful concrete and permanently unwashed windows. It is perfect for visiting in the dark season, even in pandemic times.

Closing on the same day, 17.1.2021 at Helsinki’s HAM is another thought-provoking show. The visual artist Terike Haapoja and the writer and playwright Laura Gustafsson have put together an ensemble of three works under the umbrella, Museum of Becoming.

It’s composed of a video, Becoming, an installation of the imaginary Museum of Nonhumanity and a curated collection of works owned by the City of Helsinki, under the title Remnants.

I bought the publication called Bud Book: Manual for Earthly Living, which accompanies the video. It’s available in English and Finnish. I recommend it warmly.

“Footprints are weighty, gluttonous, profligate”, writes Radhika Subramaniam, commenting on walking in a piece that I am – obviously – going to have to revisit later.

As at EMMA, the HAM exhibition points to an atmosphere, perhaps a world, seeking lightness and open space. Both exhibitions come from awareness of things not wanted. With my preoccupation with space taken up by cars that seem to keep growing, the ‘Mini’ below, for instance, both struck me as also concerned with questions about how to make conceptual space. Room for the imagination in this cluttered situation we are in.

Another strand for me to follow up – with my #colleex preoccupations – is something put into words in the book by Satu Herrala, who, among other things, is doing a doctorate at Aalto. She asks, “What is the minimal structure necessary so as not to fill space with everything we already know, but where we could and would dare to trust and try things out”.

Had I not been so slow about writing this, I could have put in a good word for another exhibition still, the Post-fossil show that ended last month at HIAP in Suomenlinna.

But there we have it. My life was quite cluttered enough, so I didn’t write about it. There is, however, a blog, maintained by HIAP, together with the Mustarinda artist network from Kainuu, here.

Besides, the take is quite different from the HAM and EMMA shows, so just as well to save it up for another day – or not.

Below is the advertising text for the walk that I led in Otaniemi earlier this week as part of Designs for a Cooler Planet events for Helsinki Design Week 2020.

The weather was appalling.

The wind and rain, however, were excellent for demonstrating the importance of infrastructure design in climate changing times. Thanks to Henriette for the photos – I think they convey the atmosphere!

Our blurb: Physical infrastructures are crucial foundations of ordinary life, conditioning our shared futures and guiding individual choices. Infrastructures connect the far-away to the near-at-hand. They blend almost unnoticed into the landscape, yet they carry hidden costs, about which only experts are normally aware. These include energy or material flows whose negative effects are distant. Infrastructures also harbour hidden risks, such as water damage and ecological disturbances, dangers with both local and far away impacts.

Of course, the point of infrastructures is to make life run smoothly. Today, however, we know that combinations of old and new technical improvements also generate novel problems. As intensified land-use meets changing Earth systems, designing for sustainability and for usability will require new ways of thinking. Innovating for resilient futures demands that we identify and communicate better about both the technical and meaningful aspects of our surroundings, and anticipate problems before it is too late.

Walking is part of fieldwork, a way to learn to pay attention. The infrastructure walk is a convivial and educational practice, combining technical expertise with local knowledge. It is guided but open-ended, aiming at identifying qualities worth noticing.

On this walk we combine forces with the Environmental Hydraulics Lab of Aalto University to focus on stormwater management on campus. The intensification of construction, more active and varied use, and land use and planning in Espoo beyond Aalto, are exactly the kinds of incremental changes that easily go unnoticed.

Specialist understanding of the challenges of stormwater management will be combined with small-scale techniques for heightening our awareness of the landscape. The goal is to notice what is often hidden in plain sight and then to imagine better alternatives together.

Walking and talking together, experts and users alike learn from each other and from the surroundings. An ancient learning practice, walking projects in recent years have drawn attention to public discomforts with mainstream development.

Professional urban experts can learn from these. Embodied experience leads to understanding the practice, not just the theory, of life in urban space. Besides educational, we hope learning to see with others will also be a joy.

Sustainability requires understanding flows of matter and power. This walk joins the dots – it will help us connect large-scale and somewhat abstract goals related to climate (13), land-use (15), water (6) or sustainable cities (11) to the local environment.

The walk was hosted by me, Eeva Berglund and Idil Gaziulusoy, of NODUS, the sustainable design research group in the Department of Design. Our guides to nature-based stormwater management solutions – and lack thereof – were Chun Lin and Juha Järvelä (below) from the Water and Environmental Engineering, Department of Built Environment, Aalto University. To our delight, Professor Harri Koivusalo and Aalto University Campus & Real Estate’s new chief, Ville Jokela also walked with us, so the conversation as we walked and talked really was a conversation.

With different weather and perhaps with more success suppressing COVID thus making people happier to join large groups, our walk might have been huge. As it was, we were a small group who braved the elements. I hope some of us will come together again to discuss our surroundings. I’m particularly keen to continue walking with folks together. Watch this space…

The one thing that stuck in my mind from what was said during the walk, was something Juha said. He pointed at a bin shelter in one of Aalto’s ubiquitous car parks. It was originally built with a green roof. It was not just a standard flat one. Nobody, Juha explained, had been taking care of the shelter and eventually a rather large tree grew on top of it.

Then it was cut down and the roof replaced with something lower maintenance.

It put a new spin on the design world’s justified interest in care.

As for walking as a practice or method of research. I think it became apparent that walking helps us slow down enough to notice things we’d not otherwise care about. This has professional significance of those who do fieldwork, whether surveying for naturalist purposes (counting trees, say) or more humanist ones (the deep hanging out that ethnographers do, say). I will write more about that on this blog later.

I look forward to walks that do both. And that get me out of the head-only world of Zoom meetings to the full-body experience for which my physique was, I guess, designed.

We, Guy Julier and I, wrote a text for a special issue of the Journal of Social Studies/ Sociální studia on “(Not) my green city? Green spaces in times of urbanization”, Vol 17, No 1 (2020). 

It’s open access so you can get it via this link.

Like many good things, writing it came out of a series of serendipitous face-to-face encounters among academics. It was at a pre-zoom-era meeting, the 2019 Sustainability Science Days conference. Attending the Degrowth panel, convened by Eeva Houtbeckers and Pasi Heikkurinen, was Katri-Liisa Pulkkinen, with her colleague from the nearby city of Tallinn, Helen Sooväli-Sepping. And she, with her colleague, Bianka Plüschke-Altof, was preparing a journal issue. Emails were exchanged, lunch squeezed in on an unrelated visit to Tallinn, etc.

Such geography, like geography and scale generally, matters to our paper. And economics matters. We may be unhappy with Helsinki’s urban policy, but don’t want to blame, as local discourse tends to, either globalization or (greedy) local decision makers. It’s more that Helsinki’s “entrepreneurial real estate policy [as] practised both by the state and cities [has] had harmful consequences and created conflicts in Finland” (in Mika Hyötyläinen and Anne Haila.  2018. Entrepreneurial public real estate policy: The case of Eiranranta, Helsinki. Geoforum, 89, 137-144.)

Our paper is titled ‘Growth in WEIRD Helsinki:  Countering Dominant Urban Politics and its “Green” Pretentions‘. In it, Guy and I draw on our own research in Helsinki, and on Harvey Molotch’s simple but powerful idea of ‘the city as growth machine’. (It’s horrific to think his paper, published in the American Journal of Sociology, dates from 1976. So much time lost to not learning.)

In our paper we play with the idea that Helsinki, like many apparently ordinary cities of the wealthy world, is weird. We believe that needs to be addressed.

We found the idea of WEIRD, in our title, Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich and Democratic, in a 2017 paper by a team of social psychologists. It’s good for self critique. When that list is mistaken for “humanity”, as it often is, it points at a crisis of academic imagination that is devastating for efforts to deal with humanity’s multiple technogenic crises. (Consider, if necessary, your recent media intake or consult the Stockholm Resilience Centre). It really is shocking that even the science of human possibility (psychology) fails to appreciate how peculiar Western culture (in all the vagueness and hubris of that concept) actually is.

Our paper is more specifically about economic growth as a taken for granted aspiration. Helsinki is used as an illustration of how economic growth becomes elided with progress. What you get is a kind of politics that is not about creating social value or about the resilience of regenerative processes so much as about the perpetuation of a normality that suits the winners of capitalism.

We also note that there is considerable weirdness to Helsinki’s ambitions to be like New York City. Kalasatama bumph 2010a ldscp

Here’s the abstract:

Despite persistent concerns over sustainability, cities continue to be developed that serve capital more than citizens. Where urban politics prioritizes growth, ‘green’ credentials easily turn out to be illusory. Helsinki, with its pro-environmental administration, is an example of combining ‘green’ agendas with a culture of growth and depoliticizing debate. This essay presents two cases of this broadly ecomodernist approach. In one case [Vartiosaari] it led to proposing the destruction of irreplaceable green space and in the other [Kalasatama], to drawing residents into international circuits of finance and data. This problem does not just emerge from corporations and elites, however. Drawing on Harvey Molotch’s idea of ‘the city as growth machine’, we suggest that growth ideology reflects a culture that, following psychologists, we might call WEIRD:  Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich and Democratic. Its claims are founded on a historically particular but widespread conception of global progress that is increasingly questioned.

Kalasatama continues to fascinate me with its property porn, and its adverts proclaiming its buildings to be the biggest in Finland.

Vartiosaari remains in the news, though mercifully it’s not massively changed since the photo below from 5 years ago. But so long as growth continues to orient urban policy, this exceptional island within Helsinki will appear to decision makers and the construction sector as empty space waiting for them to fill it. 10 urban wild

The small piece of good news is that a new boat connection is up and running, allowing for more visitors in the summer. As explained on the city’s website, the boat is solar powered and the project benefitted from Helsinki’s participatory budgeting.

The debate about what here is weird (or weird-like) is already here, I’m pleased to report. Critiques of growth like ours can be heard here and there, thanks in part possibly to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Even in an afternoon paper, Ilta Sanomat (in the photo above, headlining of a potential future Helsinki-as-Manhattan), the debate has begun. For instance, a great column by Saara Kankaanrinta appeared just last week arguing that our world is topsy-turvy. More specifically, we destroy in bulk and care in miniature (to do a very loose translation).

I recommend it for gems like this

For instance bug hotels are important, but if meanwhile our land use disregards the needs of biodiversity, we will be re-arranging (screwing in) our bug hotels as the Titanic goes down.

And in the original (which I warmly recommend to readers of Finnish)

Esimerkiksi hyönteishotellit ovat tärkeitä, mutta jos niiden rinnalla maankäytöllämme ei ole monimuotoisuuden reunaehtoja, jäämme ruuvaamaan pörriäishotellejamme Titanicin kannelle.

Noticing the taken-for-granted in novel ways

I feel acutely that my own experience since the pandemic has been privileged. I have also reduced my intake of Covid-related online news, but I am routinely conscious of heightened levels of anxiety. Nobody, least of all the British government, needs explicitly to encourage me to “Stay Alert”!

But this novelty on planet Earth, the virus known as Sars-CoV-2, hasn’t merely created anxiety, it has got folks thinking.

In this post, I too shall muse on what could be learned from the unprecedented transformations to everyday habits that the pandemic has brought about. Like most people around the world, I hanker for a more normal life. More than that though, I want more people to rethink and rework what normal means.

bell curve

https://www.mathsisfun.com/data/standard-normal-distribution.html

A good place to start would be to acknowledge that although normal in the sense of predictable and safe is no doubt worth cherishing, normal is not a synonym for universal or ordinary. As a way to categorise things in the world, the normal is a specifically modern concept. It rose in importance alongside the development of statistics for public policy (a fascinating story, beautifully told at least by Porter).

But normality in modern life also became a cultural thing. Thought of as the unremarkable and unmarked lifestyles of “modern people”, it’s also an aspiration, perhaps more than ever before in history even. Sometimes it is even a comfort, as in being categorised as normal as opposed to belonging to a risk group.

These days normality is also an existential issue for the planet. Stop to think about it, and habits that are utterly normal in modern times, people’s normal hopes and dreams, and of course, normal forms of consumption, are, or they at least create, problems for the future of human life on the planet. None are sustainable.

It’s also true that NOT consuming ‘normally’ is an economic problem. People have been told to protect themselves from Covid-19 and avoid ordinary activities like shopping and travel, but we are also incessantly being told that this avoidance is itself a huge problem.

We don’t actually need to be told. There are plenty of signs of this in our town and cities.

Vuokrataan Turku 2020

One of many to-let signs in retail properties spotted today in Turku, Finland.

Living a paradox so acutely makes you think. It’s strengthened a hunch of mine from years back. I think the normal, ordinary, taken-for-granted things that make up modern life are weird. I’ve been baffled that this weirdness, the pushing and supporting of unsustainable socio-economic structures that are known to be so damaging, isn’t recognised as a form of madness by everyone. My hunch is that it’s because the weird was long ago made normal.

That said, many have been shouting lucidly about how the pandemic indicates that thinghs were badly wrong were before Covid-19 already. They are now noting that perhaps the kind of normal that passed for “global” wasn’t much to celebrate. To quote Dan  Hill’s wonderful Slowdown Papers:

Crucially, then, the virus is intrinsic to the same patterns of activity that create the climate crisis, and its attendant crises of chronic health and inequalities. In essence, the virus is an articulation of … crisis

Some people even started asking could the pandemic actually usher in more progress.

Anyone interested in environmental issues therefore, is bound to be fascinated by the cultural, including economic, and the technical ruptures of 2020 as well as the ecological dimensions of the pandemic. The nasty future that green thinkers have long been concerned about has, in some significant way, now arrived. The links between disease in our bodies and diseased environments, links that environmental justice campaigners have had to work hard to establish, are now horribly real. The pandemic and the troubles around it amount to a kind of unveiling, as a friend put it, of all manner of self-deluding stories that all is normal and all is well. Stories of ordinary people in ordinary places who have for decades protested against ordinary threats to their quality of life, have a different hue now. Covid-19 is thus an environmental justice issue.

The havoc that the virus wreaks is worst for the most vulnerable. But even the most comfortable among us learned what it means to be scared and feel threatened.

Normal, natural, dysfunctional – making the choices

Anyone interested in changes to planetary systems has been expecting a pandemic and been at pains to point out that it is not a natural disaster.

That also means there are important choices to be made about how we respond. It’s too late to hide behind the neoliberal mantra of the last 40 or so years, that There Is No Alternative. Demanding the impossible is no longer just realistic, it’s imperative. Having followed some protest networks in recent years, I also know it’s happening. There is less talk about how complicated and impossible to fix things are and more action to make change.

You could say humanity has really taken action in recent months. You could also (though I’d hesitate to do it) argue that nature has returned with a vengeance.

I always recommend caution with big, capitalizable, words like Nature and Humanity. They erase devastating inequalities and make us ignore interesting histories. Yet Inger Andersen and Johan Rockström, writing in Time magazine, are quite quotable:

Humanity’s dysfunctional relationship with nature has caused this wider disease.  … [Covid-19] evolved into a pandemic due to the now well-established risk cocktail of the 21st century: ecosystem destruction, species loss, global warming, colliding with risky human behavior like illegal wildlife trade. All of this has played out in a globalized network of trade and travel.

That’s a scary list, but much worse are the direct and indirect human impacts of the disease: physical pain and incapacity, sometimes going on for weeks, fear of being an asymptomatic carrier, restrictions on movement and other everyday activities, losing loved ones, but also income, home, routine and social contacts. During lock-downs in particular, the toll on mental health, and in some cases life, has been off-the-scale scary. As social life shifted into physically isolated places, the scary translated into long-term devastating but also unnoticed.

As it harms, the virus is an amplifier of pre-existing inequalities and injustices.  The pandemic has also been used to great effect by the greedy or simply those for whom market competition is natural: purveyors of protective equipment, those who make money in healthcare, and all those for whom crisis equals opportunity, like tech-companies and all those who feel reliant on the ‘solutions’ they offer.

A crisis opens up all kinds of opportunities, including those lucid commentaries I hinted at, on how the pandemic could help prepare for worse disaster to come. I’d recommend at least Rebecca Solnit’s essay on hope in The Guardian (drawing similar insights as her excellently titled A Paradise Built in Hell) Dan Hill’s Slowdown papers (quoted above), several #NoBackToNormal videos from degrowth advocates, sustainability lobbying from Paul Chatterton, and, in a slightly oblique way, rethinking the power of science from Lorraine Daston.

There is quite simply a wealth of news about how, in the last weeks and months, what was considered impossible and utopian has happened or, more importantly, been made to happen.

Then there is this interesting initiative from Bruno Latour, ‘Where to land after the pandemic? A paper and … a platform’. This collective endeavour seeks ways forward that do NOT involve going back to what is, as the site notes, a catastrophic normal.

The only way to take advantage of the current situation is to learn the political lesson this virus provides us. It is capable of imposing its law everywhere in the world…

Latour starts from the observation that the pandemic has led to the halting of many activities once thought not just normal but absolutely necessary. The results – like quieter skies, cleaner air, recovering Parisian and other once-clogged up streets from motorised traffic – can take us from the concrete and actually existing to thinking more creatively about the possible and potentially desirable.

What should be stopped? What should be developed?

Values, futures and other tools for sustainable designers

In response to the virus, teaching went online of course. This included the course I co-taught with my wonderful colleague Idil Gaziulusoy, Values in Design Futures, as part of the Creative Sustainability masters programme. It brought together sustainable design, trans-disciplinary futures work and the anthropological study of value formation. We could obviously not avoid dealing with the Covid-19 outbreak. I know many of the students found it difficult emotionally as well as academically, we assigned an essay on the pandemic. I’m pleased to report that the results were excellent and, I hope, empowering more than distressing.

Using the texts and concepts we considered in class, particularly around how values become concrete in the design of environments and habits, students were able to reflect not only on problems and fears, but on society’s ability, despite deeply ingrained conceptions that There Is No Alternative, to respond creatively, swiftly and thoughtfully to threats.

Had I written an essay on the topic myself, I would probably have continued along the train of thought from my earlier musings in Repair, Brokenness, Breakthrough, edited by Francisco Martinez and Patrick Laviolette by arguing that although most powerful decision makers are totally oblivious to the fact, modernity and its problems are fundamentally cultural. I know among anthropologists such claims raise eyebrows, but basically, unless anthropologists and others show evidence of modern normality being utterly peculiar and probably toxic for both planet and people, the multiple crises it has set in motion are unlikely to be addressed with seriousness.

I would have written, echoing Idil, about how I dream about a world without carbon emmissions. I’d have written about how futures research has already generated scenarios, forecasts and speculative visions of futures that don’t depend on fossil fuel. I’d also write about how one might imagine a world that had taken a different track from around the 1970s oil crisis. My understanding is that the neoliberal, competitive, extractive and mostly macho culture that actually came to dominate not just in business but in geopolitics, in municipal government and even individual decision making, can be traced to events and choices of the 1970s. I’d write about the advertising slogan for an internet provider, “speed makes the world small”, and its loud, clear and clueless proclamation of values that are likely to push human life into danger zones that few actually want.

Kun nopeus on suuri

I’d find a way to argue that now, with the pandemic making people long for things to be normal, in the sense of safe and predictable, designers, politicians and everyone who wants to make the world a better place, could get a lot out of simply questioning what passes for normal.

I mean, I don’t believe that the airports, motorways, industrial zones and polluted skies above them, were ever so easily accepted as the only route forward. I believe that the achievement must owe a lot to the skills and cunning of marketing and design. It was those institutions, after all, that made them normal. If anything is cultural, surely that is.

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.