Tag Archives: environment

Rob Nixon: Slow Violence

Rob Nixon Slow ViolenceI love this book, and not just because this term ‘slow violence’ encapsulates so brilliantly what I have been fighting my entire life — particularly visible in fighting slum lords who made their money by providing tenants with rats, roaches, lead-poisoning, mould, asthma, rashes, depression, harassment, fear, overflowing toilets, uncertainty and a horrible dingy water-stained shade to life twenty-four hours a day seven days a week for years. But this kind of violence becomes visible in so many ways in the lives of people and communities where I have lived and worked. It has shaped so much of who I am, it is the violence of poverty and powerlessness — until a stand is made against it. Nixon writes:

…we urgently need to rethink–politically, imaginatively, and theoretically–what I call “slow violence.” By slow violence I mean a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all. Violence is customarily conceived as an event or action that is immediate in time, explosive and spectacular in space, and as erupting into instant sensational visibility. We need, I believe, to engage a different kind of violence, a violence that is neither spectacular nor instantaneous, but rather incremental and accretive, its calamitous repercussions playing out across a range of temporal scales. (2)

Given how media and public attention works, how do we gain attention for slow-moving accumulating disaster? Especially important and requiring both thought and action because:

it is those people lacking resources who are the principle casualties of slow violence. Their unseen poverty is compounded by the invisibility of the slow violence that permeates so many of their lives (4)

This is also complicated because such environmental struggles are never ‘pure’, but form part of larger social and cultural struggles.But again, returning to their scope and duration, one of the greater challenges is that of scale:

how can we imaginatively and strategically render visible vast force fields of interconnectedness against the attenuating effects of temporal and geographical distance? (38)

…slow violence involves more than a perceptual problem created by the gap between destructive policies or practices and their deferred, invisible consequences. For in addition, slow violence provides prevaricative cover for the forces that have the most to profit from inaction…doubt is… a bankable product. (40)

It is this terminology and thinking through of slow violence that I find most useful, but I enjoyed the varied stories through the book as Nixon explores how slow violence is described and made prominent through

the complex, often vexed figure of the environmental writer-activist. (5)

He looks at their work as a way in to this, a way to act upon this:

To confront slow violence requires, then, that we plot and give figurative shape to formless threats who fatal repercussions are dispersed across space and time. The representational challenges are acute, requiring creative ways of drawing public attention to catastrophic acts that are low in instant spectacle but high in long-term effects. To intervene representationally entails devising iconic symbols that embody amorphous calamities as well as narrative forms that infuse those symbols with dramatic urgency. (10)

On the nature of slow violence

I love this quotation from Edward Said:

“the normalized quiet of unseen power.” This normalized quiet is of particular pertinence to the hushed havoc and injurious invisibility that trail slow violence. (6 — quote from ‘Wordly Humanism v. the World Builders, Counterpunch 4 August 2003)

and adds an interesting comparison this with Fanon’s work on violence, and how different this understanding of violence is as it

addresses environmentally embedded violence that is often difficult to source, oppose, and once set in motion, to reverse. (7)

Not that it is anything but complementary. In both

For if the past of slow violence is never past, so too the post is never fully post: industrial particulates and effluents live on in the environmental elements we inhabit and in our very bodies, which epidemiologically and ecologically are never our simple contemporaries. (8)

It is this very time scale that makes it so difficult to grasp and force action around. Others who have sought to grapple with it include Johan Galtung who coined the term ‘indirect or structural violence’, and sought to widen understanding of what constitutes violence from personal violence to include and ‘foreground the vast structures that can give rise to acts of personal violence and constitute forms of violence in themselves.’ (10)

However:

structural violence is a theory that entails rethinking different notions of causation and agency with respect to violent effects. Slow violence, by contrast, might well include forms of structural violence but has a wider descriptive range in calling attention, not simply to questions of agency, but to broader, more complex descriptive categories of violence enacted slowly over time. (11)

Just one example is how we too often look at, talk about, understand war. It is bracketed in talking of casualties between firm dates, but things like land mines, agent orange, depleted uranium all stretch out those casualties through years and decades. A whole chapter here describes Gulf War Syndrome — much of this violence is ‘invisible’ to certain or all views, purposefully hidden or erased while other views and perspectives are privileged.

Slow violence of landscape and maps:

In the global resource wars, the environmentalism of the poor is frequently triggered when an official landscape is forcibly imposed on a vernacular one. A vernacular landscape is shaped by the affective, historically textured maps that communities have devised over generations, maps replete with names and routes, maps alive to significant ecological and surface geological features. A vernacular landscape, although neither monolithic nor undisputed, is integral to the socioenvironmental dynamics of community rather than being wholly externalized–treated as out there, as a separate nonrenewable resource. (17)

This made me think so much about writers like Oliver Rackham describing the changing countryside of England through processes of enclosure, and of course this is equally true of conquest and colonialisation around the world. Nixon continues:

I would argue, then, that the exponential upsurge in indigenous resource rebellions across the globe during the high age of neoliberalism has resulted largely from a clash of temporal perspectives between the short-termers who arrive (with their official landscape maps) to extract, despoil, and depart and the long-termers who must live inside the ecological aftermath and must therefore weigh wealth differently in time’s scales.

More than material wealth is here at stake: imposed official landscapes typically discount spiritualized vernacular landscapes, severing webs of accumulated cultural meaning and treating the landscape as if it were uninhabited by the living, the unborn and the animate deceased. (17)

There is so much here, the imbrications of the cultural, spiritual, physical, environmental, political…I like this poetic acknowledgement of different relations to the land.

Our perspective on environmental asset stripping should include among assets stripped the mingled presence in the landscape of multiple generations… (18)

I also love this, more resonant with indigenous struggles but also with asset-stripped inner cities and barren countrysides:

I want to propose a more radical notion of displacement, one that, instead of referring solely to the movement of people from their places of belonging, refers rather to the loss of the land and resources beneath them, a loss that leaves communities stranded in a place stripped of the very characteristics that made it habitable. (19)

Slow violence of Neoliberalism

Neoliberalism’s proliferating walls concretize a short-term psychology of denial: the delusion that we can survive long term in a world whose resources and increasingly unshared. The wall, read in terms of neoliberalism and environmental slow violence, materializes temporal as well as spatial denial through a literal concretizing of out of sight out of mind. (20)

There is some (but I would have looked forward to more I think) about walls, boundaries, what can be imagined and what can be said.

From a postcolonial perspective, the most startling feature of environmental literary studies has been its reluctance to engage the environmental repercussions of American foreign policy, particularly in relation to contemporary imperial practices. (33)

Some smart things about capitalism, that I have found echoes of in Jason Moore’s work (Capitalism and the Web of Life, which I am only partly through and also love)

capitalism’s innate tendency to abstract in order to extract, intensifying the distancing mechanisms that make the sources of environmental violence harder to track and multinational environmental answerability harder to impose. (41)

And then a number of profound thoughts around various writers and struggle and how connections have been and can be made between them. Perhaps my favourite is this mural found in County Mayo of Ken Saro-Wiwa, connecting the struggle of both communities against Shell Oil with his poetry translated into Gaelic…

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Dance your anger, Dance your joys, Dance the guns to silence, dance, dance, dance…

Nixon writes:

A quarter century ago, Raymond Williams called for more novels that attend to “the close living substance” of the local while simultaneously tracing the “occluded relationships”–the vast transnational economic pressures, the labor and commodity dynamics–that invisibly shape the local. (45)

A call I hope to respond to alongside (but probably not nearly as well) as the many writers looked at here — which has generated a whole new list of books I hope to read (and numerous essays, and the below is by no means the full list but this gives you a brief idea of the scope):

  • Animal’s People by Indra Sinha, in a context of the Bhopal distaster, how this compares to Chernobyl
  • Abdelrahman Munif Cities of Salt — five novels exploring petroleum industry and deal between Saudi Arabia and the US
  • Genocide in Nigeria (and others) by Ken Saro-Wiwa, on Shell Oil in Nigeria
  • Wangari Maathai’s Unbowed on Kenya’s Green Belt Movement and the planting of trees
  • Anna Tsing – Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection
  • Richard Drayton — Nature’s Government, on Kew gardens, and network of imperial gardens, and the ideology of improvement
  • Jamaica Kincaid on gardens! Woot!
  • Ramachandra Guha – Environmentalism: A Global History

There is more on megadams, the American pastoral and its problematic nature, wandering and etc etc.

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Gilbert White: The Natural History of Selborne

White's_Selborne_1813_title_page_(detail)I have been meaning to read the Natural History of Selborne by Gilbert White for ages as a classic of natural history. Classic it was, so some things I found fascinating, and there was a surprisingly great deal that surprised me immensely — though I know it shouldn’t have. This mostly had to do with how much ‘science’ of the time involved shooting a multitude of things (is it rare? Let’s kill it!) and having some or all of them stuffed.

I am finding it amazingly comforting (apologies to the shade of Gilbert White) that he was disappointed in his career, never receiving the post he wanted and relegated to live alone as a curate in the village of his birth. In that place, despite all the weight of his crushed dreams and hopes, he spent his time doing some of what he loved, wrote at great length and is better known than almost all of his contemporaries. I was sad to come to the end of this, I rather missed him.

All that said, it opens with poetry of the kind that I really like least…

INVITATION TO SELBORNE.

See, Selborne spreads her boldest beauties round
The varied valley, and the mountain ground,
Wildly majestic ! What is all the pride,
Of flats, with loads of ornaments supplied?—
Unpleasing, tasteless, impotent expense,
Compared with Nature’s rude magnificence.

But he regains some respect through the curiosity that drives his growing depth of knowledge of the natural world around him. He is rarely humorous or witty it is true, but this I quite enjoyed. At first I did find it humorous, but really it explains what he most felt the lack of in his place and positions — and actually lack of companionship is what I should worry about most leaving the city:

It has been my misfortune never to have had any neighbours whose studies have led them towards the pursuit of natural knowledge; so that, for want of a companion to quicken my industry and sharpen my attention, I have made but slender progress in a kind of information to which I have been attached from my childhood.

It is very cool to see how much of his thought is shaped by Linneaus and the work he inspires — which explains the constant references to Sweden I think (made me even sadder we didn’t get to Upsala in our recent trip, but there is next time perhaps), but they puzzled me just a bit at first:

Selborne parish alone can and has exhibited at times more than half the birds that are ever seen in all Sweden; the former has produced more than one hundred and twenty species, the latter only two hundred and twenty-one. Let me add also that it has shown near half the species that were ever known in Great Britain.* (* Sweden, 221; Great Britain, 252 species.)

He continues, and this made me laugh because there is indeed a very distinctive style to his writing:

On a retrospect, I observe that my long letter carries with it a quaint and magisterial air, and is very sententious: but, when I recollect that you requested stricture and anecdote, I hope you will pardon the didactic manner for the sake of the information it may happen to contain.
–2 Sept, 1774

I like too this point, which I confess I agree with:

Men that undertake only one district are much more likely to advance natural knowledge than those that grasp at more than they can possibly be acquainted with: every kingdom, every province, should have its own monographer.
— 8 Oct 1770

There are some hilarious digs at other branches of natural history as well…

Faunists, as you observe, are too apt to acquiesce in bare descriptions, and a few synonyms: the reason is plain; because all that may be done at home in a man’s study, but the investigation of the life and conversation of animals, is a concern of much more trouble and difficulty, and is not to be attained but by the active and inquisitive, and by those that reside much in the country.
–1 Aug 1771

This focus on ‘the life and conversations of animals’ is I think why Gilbert White is still remembered and read with pleasure, and sets out what he hoped to do.

I think part of what surprised me most, though again, it really shouldn’t have, was the offhand references to shooting absolutely everything, both for study and for sport. Thus there are comments like this one:

But there was a nobler species of game in this forest, now extinct, which I have heard old people say abounded much before shooting flying became so common, and that was the heath-cock, black- game, or grouse. When I was a little boy I recollect one coming now and then to my father’s table. The last pack remembered was killed about thirty-five years ago; and within these ten years one solitary greyhen was sprung by some beagles in beating for a hare. The sportsmen cried out, ‘A hen pheasant’; but a gentleman present, who had often seen grouse in the north of England, assured me that it was a greyhen.
— Letter VI

I’ll write more about hunting in a second post, because the relationship between human beings and the world around them, and how they understand that relationship, is so interesting. He describes it in great detail, which is in itself interesting. But he thinks in terms of systems, how things fit together, why animals should behave as they do. One of my favourite sections comes near the end of his letter-writing career, where he writes:

The most insignificant insects and reptiles are of much more consequence, and have much more influence in the Economy nature, than the incurious are aware of; and are mighty in their effect, from their minuteness, which renders them less an object of attention; and from their numbers and fecundity. Earth-worms, though in appearance a small and despicable link in the chain of nature, yet, if lost, would make a lamentable chasm.
— 20 May 1777

This is much nearer the beginning transformations of the industrial revolution, the beginnings of thinking about the rights of man and the nature of society and economy — I quite liked this analysis of how this particular system works, and the language used to describe it:

A circumstance respecting these ponds, though by no means peculiar to them, I cannot pass over in silence; and that is, that instinct by which in summer all the kine, whether oxen, cows, calves, or heifers, retire constantly to the water during the hotter hours; where, being more exempt from flies, and inhaling the coolness of that element, some belly deep, and some only to mid- leg, they ruminate and solace themselves from about ten in the morning till four in the afternoon, and then return to their feeding. During this great proportion of the day they drop much dung, in which insects nestle; and so supply food for the fish, which would be poorly subsisted but from this contingency. Thus nature, who is a great economist, converts the recreation of one animal to the support of another!

He is also writing at the beginnings of natural history as we know it:

A little bird (it is either a species of the alauda trivialis, or rather perhaps of the motacilla trochilus) still continues to make a sibilous shivering noise in the tops of tall woods. The stoparola of Ray (for which we have as yet no name in these parts) is called, in your Zoology, the fly-catcher.

I perceive there are more than one species of the motacilla trochilus: Mr. Derham supposes, in Ray’s Philos. Letters, that he has discovered three. In these there is again an instance of some very common birds that have as yet no English name.
— 4th Aug 1767

Reading it, it feels that he has found two kindred spirits to send his letter to describing what he is uncovering about the world, but that everyone in his congregation knows that he is collecting things dead and alive. It feels like there is a host of boys out there combing the countryside. In the progression of knowledge, Reverend Gilbert White has few compunctions:

One of these nests I procured this autumn, most artificially platted, and composed of the blades of wheat; perfectly round, and about the size of a cricket-ball; with the aperture so ingeniously closed, that there was no discovering to what part it belonged. It was so compact and well filled, that it would roll across the tame being discomposed, though it contained eight little mice that were naked and blind.
— 4 Nov 1767

He shoots things (or has things shot, mostly in the early letters), and eagerly cuts them open:

Many times have I had the curiosity to open the stomachs of woodcocks and snipes; but nothing ever occurred that helped to explain to me what their subsistence might be: all that I could ever find was a soft mucus, among which lay many pellucid small gravels.
— 15 Jan 1770

There are amazing notes like the one below — often these letters are just more or less lists of observations and tales recounted of interesting things:

Some intelligent country people have a notion that we have, in these parts, a species of the genus mustelinum, besides the weasel, stoat, ferret, and polecat; a little reddish beast, not much bigger than a field mouse, but much longer, which they call a cane. This piece of intelligence can be little depended on; but farther inquiry may be made.

A gentleman in this neighbourhood had two milk-white rooks in one nest. A booby of a carter, finding them before they were able to fly, threw them down and destroyed them, to the regret of the owner, who would have been glad to have preserved such a curiosity in his rookery. I saw the birds myself nailed against the end of a barn, and was surprised to find that their bills, legs, feet, and claws were milk-white.
— 1768

There is more than one animal shot and nailed to a barn door as a curiosity, which in itself I find so curious. We have come a long way from that, it is hard to even imagine it.

Just as curious is this odd account of a stinking snake:

When I wrote to you last year on reptiles, I wish I had not forgot to mention the faculty that snakes have of stinking se defendendo. I knew a gentleman who kept a tame snake, which was in its person as sweet as any animal while in a good humour and unalarmed; but as soon as a stranger or a dog or cat, came in, it fell to hissing, and filled the room with such nauseous effluvia as rendered it hardly supportable. Thus the squnck, or stonck, of Ray’s Synop. Ouadr. is an innocuous and sweet animal; but, when pressed hard by dogs and men, it can eject such a pestilent and fetid smell and excrement, that nodding can be more horrible.
— 30 August, 1769

I think perhaps what sets this apart is that for the most part Gilbert White is observing the habits of living creatures, patterns in their behaviour. He does shoot quite a lot of things, but I suppose before cameras or binoculars, some details could only be checked at close hand.  He has his own small collection of animals and birds stuffed and mounted — mourns lack of access to bigger collections and always writes with some humility:

Your partiality towards my small abilities persuades you, I fear, that I am able to do more than is in my power: for it is no small undertaking for a man unsupported and alone to begin a natural history from his own autopsia! Though there is endless room for observation in the field of nature, which is boundless, yet investigation (where a man endeavours to be sure of his facts) can make but slow progress; and all that one could collect in many years would go into a very narrow compass.
–12 April 1770

An autopsia! More on the mania for collecting things (as well as the strange habits of swallows):

A certain swallow built for two years together on the handles of a pair of garden-shears, that were stuck up against the boards in an out-house, and therefore must have her nest spoiled whenever that implement was wanted: and, what is stranger still, another bird of the same species built its nest on the wings and body of an owl that happened by accident to hang dead and dry from the rafter of a barn. This owl, with the nest on its wings, and with eggs in the nest, was brought as a curiosity worthy the most elegant private museum in Great Britain. The owner, struck with the oddity of the sight, furnished the bringer with a large shell, or conch, desiring him to fix it just where the owl hung: the person did as he was ordered, and the following year a pair, probably the same pair, built their nest in the conch, and laid their eggs.

The owl and the conch make a strange grotesque appearance, and are not the least curious specimens in that wonderful collection of art and nature.*
–29 Jan 1774

The * refers the reader to the existence of Sir Ashton Lever’s Museum — more about that very fascinating place here and here — reading Gilbert White, the impulses of knowledge and wonder come more to the fore despite the gory methods, but this collection is rather different, based on things brought back by Captain Cook on his travels, which connects to a darker legacy of conquest and violence, and the cataloguing of things to be able to calculate their market value.

Two more curiosities — an entire day where the air was absolutely full of cobwebs raining down from the sky:

About nine an appearance very unusual began to demand our attention, a shower of cobwebs falling from very elevated regions, and continuing, without any interruption, till the close of the day. These webs were not single filmy threads, floating in the air in all directions, but perfect flakes or rags; some near an inch broad, and five or six long, which fell with a degree of velocity which showed they were considerably heavier than the atmosphere.
— 8 June 1775

Also echoes! A whole section on echoes:

The true object of this echo, as we found by various experiments, is the stone-built, tiled hop-kiln in Galleylane, which measures in front 40 feet, and from the ground to the eaves 12 feet. The true centrum phonicum, or just distance, is one particular spot in the King’s-field, in the path to Nore-hill, on the very brink of the steep balk above the hollow cart way.
— 12 Feb 1778

and another amazing word, to end on a high:

this village is another Anathoth, a place of responses or echoes.

 

 

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James Lovelock and Gaia

James Lovelock - GaiaJames Lovelock opens Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth is SF fashion thus:

As I write, two Viking spacecraft are circling our fellow planet Mars, awaiting landfall instructions from the Earth. Their mission is to search for life, or evidence of life, now or long ago. This book is also about a search for life…

His questions — how do you detect life? How do you know life on another planet when you see it?

In our efforts to explore space and its far planets we traveled far, but the real magic happened when we turned around. That moment we were able to view the earth from such a distance in all of its extraordinary beauty as a planet forever changed how we see it, how we try to understand it, the scale at which we are able to think (though then as now, people continue to work and think at narrowed, focused, reductionist scales).

So how do you know there is life under vastly different conditions? It might take completely different forms…

Lovelock’s tentative suggestion is that you can know it is there through the slowing down or reversing of entropy. When you look at the earth it is immensely improbable that we should have life here, that there should be an atmosphere, that the temperature should remain so constant despite changes in sun’s own heat. It should have, could have settled down in any number of states of equilibrium as entropy did its work and things fell apart and died away. But on earth it didn’t. In his metaphor that I rather liked, most planets are windswept beaches, while earth is the sandcastle.

He quotes his own thinking from 1967:

Disequilibria on this scale suggest that the atmosphere is not merely a biological product, but more probably a biological construction: not living, but like a cat’s fur, a bird’s feathers, or the paper of a wasp’s nests, an extension of a living system designed to maintain a chosen environment.

The climate and the chemical properties of the Earth now and throughout its history seem always to have been optimal for life. For this to have happened by chance is as unlikely as to survive unscathed a drive blindfolded through rush-hour traffic. (9-10)

I love this idea of earth as a wasp’s nest, as biological construction. It sparks all kinds of imaginings. He continues:

By now a planet-sized entity, albeit hypothetical, had been born, with properties which could not be predicted from the sum of its parts. It needed a name. Fortunately the author William Golding was a fellow villager. Without hesitation he recommended this creature be called Gaia… (10)

Blimey. William Golding as a neighbor.

I found the unfamiliar science in here a bit dense, apparently most scientists found this far too poetic. I suppose it does quote H.G. Wells, refers to Jules Verne, Arthur C. Clarke. I rather love this tie between his attempt to make a leap in science based on a vision of our planet from space, and imaginings emerging from SF.

Lovelock looks not to the source and the start of everything, but to the creation of a planetary system able to maintain life. Imagining an early world of anaerobic life and stromatalites. One of the earth’s first cataclysms was the eruption of oxygen into the atmosphere, killing it all dead, though it probably entered the atmosphere little by little, allowing time for adaptation. But if there were too much oxygen? Things would get explosive. Too little? Life as we know it would die. How then, do we have just the right amount?

Through constant corrections made in myriads of ways. I loved the comparison with cybernetics, how it works not like linear thinking and moving towards a goal through cause and effect a la Descartes, but rather through a constant circular feedback-driven cycle of correction to maintain the goal. No clear beginning, rather constant movement, oscillation. Thus a focus on cycles that fits also with earth and agricultural systems and the many ways of life and thought most dependent on them.

Lynn Margulis is someone else on my list of books to read. She and Lovelock were colleagues and he quotes her saying that in each creature optimising its chances for life, the sum total is Gaia. It is an expression of how everything is connected, and life itself works to maximise the conditions for life.

Originally published in 1979, these theories have, of course, been much further developed since then. They are no longer new, no longer ridiculed in the same way. It was good to read where it started. Interesting also to see how much Lovelock himself has moved, not from thinking of Gaia as a kind of world system maintaining life on the planet, but in understanding just how much human beings are having an impact on it. Though he described a doomsday scenario in the book arrived at through genetic engineering, it is clear he thought us creatures of earth ourselves and thus integral parts of this system, our technologies were above all beneficial and could not have too desperate an impact.

He doesn’t feel the same way now, the preface makes that clear.

I am glad of that, though I rather liked the attitude that earth and life is so vastly bigger than we are, it doesn’t much matter if we manage to destroy ourselves. That reminded me a bit of Roadside Picnic by the Strugatskys.

This place has an amazing library. I hardly know what to read next. Yay weekend.

[Lovelock, James (1995) Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.]

Death and the Anthropocene: Roy Scranton

25330145There is a name for this new world: the Anthropocene. The word comes from ancient Greek. All the epochs of the most recent geological era (the Cenozoic) end in the suffix “-cene,” from kainós, meaning new. Anthropos means human. The idea behind the term “Anthropocene” is that we have entered a new epoch in Earth’s geological history, one characterized by the advent of the human species as a geological force. (17)

There you have this new word being thrown around in environmental and urbanist and academic circles — anthropocene. It annoyed me at first, I confess. But new words often do, when they feel like an academic gimmick to make old ideas stand out. I’ve decided this isn’t one of those words though, I think it’s a good word.

I liked this tiny book as well, a couple of essays pushed into a just-long-enough form. There is plenty to ponder here with some solid references for climate change and the role human beings have played in entering this new period.

Thomas Schelling is one to remember, writing that carbon trading simply will not work. The idea of climate change as a ‘wicked’ problem, I am trying to remember where else I have seen that used:

Global warming is what is called a ‘wicked problem’: it doesn’t offer any clear solutions, only better and worse responses. One of the most difficult aspects to deal with is that it is a collective-action problem of the highest order. (53)

and this:

The problem with our response to climate change isn’t a problem with passing the right laws or finding the right price for carbon or changing people’s minds or raising awareness. Everybody already knows. The problem is that the problem is too big. The problem is that different people want different things. the problem is that nobody has real answers. The problem is that the problem is us. (68)

There were a few other references that fascinated me — Mount Tambora exploding in 1816, creating ‘The Year Without a Summer’ (52). And then the ‘dark snow’ effect that is helping melt glaciers in Greenland (52). I have never heard of either.

But really, this comes down to a rather interesting philosophical take on what is needed now from human beings:

To survive as a soldier, I had to learn to accept the inevitability of my own death. For humanity to survive in the Anthropocene, we need to learn to live with and through the end of our current civilization. Change, risk, conflict, strife and death are the very processes of life, and we cannot avoid them. We must learn to accept and adapt. (22)

There is a lot about death. A calling on samurai wisdom. I feel this probably works for some, but at the same time it is such a male path, a warrior path — and it feels like a path, a way. This is such a continuation of beat poets and City Lights tradition. Nothing about love, healing, compassion, creation, cooperation in here, though I think they are as much processes of life as anything else. Vandana Shiva is as much a warrior, but it has nothing of her love or hopes for the future or sense of connection to the world nor how we might change things in very different fashion. So all in all, I wouldn’t mind working side by side with people on this way, but it is not one I would chose. Or that would choose me.

I’m not one to completely discount the need for violence in liberation, but I disagree that violent struggle is the real maker of change. Nor do I quite see civil rights struggles in the same light. He writes:

‘What’s more, the success of the Civil Rights movement can’t be properly understood, without taking into account federal military interventions'(73)

He lists Eisenhower sending troops in 1957 to desegregate Little Rock schools, Robert Kennedy sending marshals to university of Mississippi in 1962, John Kennedy sending troops to stop rioting at University of Mississippi and the University of Alabama 1963, federal troops protecting marchers from Montgomery to Selma. (73)

‘…the fight to win fundamental civil rights and political equality from segregationists and racists was grinding, dangerous, and aggressive: it strove to take something from Southern white racists that they didn’t want to give up, namely power. (74)

And from this he goes on to quote Heraclitus:

It should be understood that war is the common condition, that strife is justice, and that all things come to pass through the compulsion of strife. (76)

And:

Fight. Flight. Fight. Flight. The threat of death activates our deepest animal drives. (77)

I think there’s a bit more to us, to animals. I have to disagree strongly with Heraclitus.

The greatest challenge we face is a philosophical one: understanding that this civilization is already dead. The sooner we confront our situation and realize there is nothing we can do to save ourselves, the sooner we can get down to the difficult task of adapting, with mortal humility, to our new reality. (23)

I think acceptance of this statement will help some people, but I don’t think it will mean anything or be at all helpful to others.

The other really interesting thing in here, though, was on resonance, energy, our communication and how it is changing and potentially changing us. Think of bees and their dancing, their hive mind, and then think of twitter and facebook:

Politics, whether for bees or humans, is the energetic distribution of bodies in systems. (55-56)

Are we really organised entirely around energy? That is a really fucking interesting thought, though I’m not sure I buy it:

The key is energy: energy production and social energetics. Just as a beehive is structured around the production of honey, so are human societies structured around labor, horses, wheat, coal, and oil. How bodies harvest, produce, organize, and distribute energy determines how power flows, shaping the political arrangements of a given collective organism behind whatever ideologies the ruling classes may use to manufacture consent, obscure the mechanisms of control, or convince themselves of their infallible omniscience. (56)

He quotes Timothy Mitchell’s Carbon Democracy (on my list to read for some time now)

Workers were gradually connected together not so much by the weak ties of a class culture, collective ideology, or political organization, but by the increasing and highly concentrated quantities of carbon energy they mined, loaded, carried, stoked, and put to work. The coordinated acts of interrupting, slowing down, or diverting its movement created a decisive political machinery, a new form of collective capability built out of coalmines, railways, power stations, and their operators. (58)

I’m just not so sure this is entirely true as the foundation of power whether or capital or labour, or even of organising. Again it is such a male world, a working world that has nothing to do with women and children, home and community, words, race, sexuality, cities… so much is left out of this equation.

He has this interesting theory about vibrations though, the way we now share and thus amplify meme after meme, pictures, news, sound-bite beliefs:

But politics is the energetic distribution of bodies in systems, and we live in a system of carbon-fueled capitalism that we shouldn’t expect to work in physical human ways for several reasons, especially when it comes to responding to the threat of global warming. First, our political and social media technologies are not neutral, but have been developed to serve particular interests…Second, the more we pass on or react to social vibrations, the more we strengthen our habits of channeling and the less we practice autonomous reflection or independent critical thought. With every protest chant, retweet, and Facebook post, we become stronger resonators and weaker thinkers. Third, however intense our social vibrations grow, they remain locked within a machinery that offers no political leverage:  they do not translate into political action, because they do not connect to the flows of power. (84-85)

This is so SF, so William Gibson, I don’t think the internet and virtual reality has actually quite worked out like this. But maybe. It’s worth a ponder:

A new form of life has become evident: humanity has revealed itself as collective energy, light swarming across a darkened planet, a geological forcing, data and flow. We live in networks, webs, and hives, jacked in to remote-controlled devices and autonomous apps, moments of being in time, out of time. No longer individual subjects or discrete objects, we jave become vibrations, channelers, tweeters and followers. (107)

As is the idea that there are ‘new technologies of photohumanism’ and what that means.

I confess I like too the call for a renewed humanism — reminds of Edward Said’s defense of it really as a critical consciousness and an awareness of all that has come before us and all that will come after:

Philosophical humanism in its most radical practice is the disciplined interruption of somatic and social flows, the detachment of consciousness from impulse, and the condensation of conceptual truths out of the granular data of experience. It is the study of “dying and being dead,” a divestment from this life in favour of deeper investments in a life beyond ourselves. (91)

I like too that it is something we actively engage in, it is not just an archive:

The study of the humanities is nothing less than the [patient nurturing of the roots and heirloom varietals of human symbolic life. This nurturing is a practice not strictly of curation, as many seem to think today, but of active attention, cultivation, making and remaking. It is not enough for the archive to be stored, mapped, or digitized. (99)

I’m not sure at the end, quite where this leaves those of us who feel more called to life and love than death though.

Starting a Community Garden

To go from gravel covered ground to a vibrant community garden of raised beds is going to take a lot of work, so we thought the sooner we started the better. The 5th of March was chosen and we stuck to it and we had a number of brave and wonderful people brave the weather to join us:

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We planned a number of activities so that all ages could participate even at this stage of the community garden, from planting seeds to planting sacks. We set up a few tables in the foyer though, so people could plant some seeds to take away and grow food on their windowsills, and if possible to bring us back a plant or two that could grow and flourish here.

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The sack planting was a bit chilly but very cool, and tomorrow’s post will be a complete how-to on how to make your own. They are very useful ways to grows vegetables in small urban spaces like balconies or a little patch of paved garden.

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The key learning, however, is that it is not too early for strawberries.

The main things for Saturday, however, was to build one of the large herb beds we want to set alongside the path across the Precinct site, so people can pick fresh herbs for their meals as they walk from Cable Street to the Limehouse DLR and back.

We started with the large but fairly flimsy structure that our first load of firewood was delivered in. To get it in out of the first drops of rain, I had already sawed this in two as you can see:

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To shore up those flimsy sides we broke up two other pallets (given to us by a wonderful foreman name of Gary running a building site off Commercial)

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And screwed it all together:

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At that point it started to hail. We brought it all inside the hub.

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Paint doesn’t usually last too long on outdoor beds, cracking and peeling with sun and rain and, er, hail. But we have gallons of marine paint left over from painting the trim on the containers and that is much more resilient, so we went ahead and used that to paint our first herb bed. Half orange and half turquoise.

It isn’t the best paint to use inside and in enclosed spaces, but we made do…

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We’ll be lining it and filling it with wicking materials to conserve moisture despite the windiness and exposure of our site, then soil and plants, probably also adding a bench to make it somewhere people can sit and enjoy the fragrance once it warms up a bit. Looking at it, I wonder if it doesn’t need a few more planks and a little more solidity, but we’ll be keeping some of the spaces as things will grow as happily out of the side of it as they will from the top. We’ll be posting another how-to once it is all done, but for a first day this was absolutely lovely and we got so much accomplished.

Best of all, I think, was the time we were able to work outside and chat with people on their way through who just came up to to find out what we were doing, to say how happy they were that this vacant piece of land was finally being put to a community use, and even just how much they loved gardens. It really felt like we were creating a sense of community then, and gave us a good taste of what will be possible when the sun is shining and people are looking around for things to do outside…

I’m going to end this gratuitously with a puppy, Nala is the Precinct Art Space’s newest tenant and made Saturday even more wonderful than it was before. Along with always having strawberries, may we suggest trying to find a puppy to join you…

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[also posted on St Katharine’s site]

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Amazing Container Gardens from recycled materials

I started research on what to do for our community container garden just looking at pallet constructions. There are some beautiful DIY designs, this one from Caravanserai, who were amazing enough to help us build the benches for the cafe and who are coming on Saturday to lend a hand:

b32dc9eb52b5b05d8da6fd6194fb0295And more…

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from palletsdesigns.com

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A vertical pallet herb garden…I’m pretty excited about that…

pallet-vertical-garden-ideaThese are perhaps more classy…more work too. But so beautiful from palletsdesigns.com:

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Put all together they are lovely, as you can see in a post from 99pallets.com (I clearly am far from alone in loving pallet construction):

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There are some more complex designs that require a little more than a hand saw, though I suppose you could manage with just that:

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from palletfurniturediy.com

all the way to more professional loveliness that still seems within reach

b sq. Design Studio, Canada Blooms Garden Festival
b sq. Design Studio, Canada Blooms Garden Festival

These varnished and waxed vertical systems for succulent seem just as fancy — also doable:

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from palletfurniturediy.com

And what to do with that sunny but vertical slope?

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You think it can’t get better and then you look at this amazing project from Johannesburg: you start with something so simple, that becomes more complex:

Brothers-in-benches-pallet-social-project-done-in-Johannesburg-1-400x300Put a few more together and holy shit:

Brothers-in-benches-pallet-social-project-done-in-Johannesburg-3-400x291There is a write-up of the project ‘Brothers in Benches’ here — what better way to allow people to creatively interact with and shape social space?

That’s enough about pallets, because while looking into them I heard from a wonderful friend about African Sack gardening, as they had planted them in the school where she worked with their students. Who loved them unconditionally.

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Part of a wonderful how-to post from Humanitarian Aid & Relief: Stories and updates from World Concern

 

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(RIGHT) Ms Harriet Nakabale plucks spinach from a sack that doubles as a garden in her compound. (LEFT) Ms Nakabale shows a section of straw berries from her home based farm. From The Daily Monitor.

Looking more at them,  I began to find my way into the wider wonderful world of container growing in the Phillipines. There is Peñalosa Farms, Negros Occidental. I mean, my god:

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Paradise.

Ramon_Penalosa vertical organic gardenYou can stay there too.

I was amazed by how people have recycled plastic, inspired, and then momentarily cast down after stumbling across an article that suggested they might well be unsafe. Then I recalled all those posts about why you shouldn’t drink bottled water and the carcinogens leaching out of the plastic and etc. So a little more research… Some plastic is unsafe, but some is (probably) safe. For a long discussion of that try this article on the fresh organic gardening website.  These are the ‘safe’ plastics

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PETE or PET bottles. You see the triangle symbol with the #1 inside at the bottom of the container. This type of plastic is used for most clear beverage bottles.

HDPE (high density polyethylene). You see the triangle symbol with the #2 inside at the bottom of the container. This type of plastic is used for “cloudy” milk and water jugs, opaque food bottles.

LDPE (low density polyethylene). You see the triangle symbol with the #4 inside at the bottom of the container. This plastic is used in food storage bags and squeeze bottles.

PP (polypropylene). You see the triangle symbol with the #5 inside at the bottom of the container. This is used in rigid containers, including some baby bottles, and some cups and bowls. Examples are the wide-necked milky white containers usually used for yogurt.

This is an issue with some reclaimed wood as well, we’ll be lining our beds so there’s no possibility of toxins leaching from creasote-treated or painted wood. I’m glad some bottles are probably safe, because there is recycled bottle tower growing — I am so looking forward to trying this:

p1070455-copyYou can find a wonderful how-to post from Dr Van Cotthem here, which is a site where my vertical and container gardening learning has advanced in leaps and bounds. More from the Phillipines:

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From Rancho Delicioso in Costa Rica:

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But those bottles don’t have to stay vertical, they can be laid out horizontally like so:

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Hung from on high

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Put into pyramids even

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More vertical gardening ideas use gutters — all the lettuce you could use for your salads:

http://ranchodelicioso.com/recycled-bottle-gardens/

Amazing what we can do, how much we can grow even in small spaces.

Now, to grow it.

Three Inspirational Community Gardens

Only a fraction of the places you could look, because they are so many! What more do you need in searching for some kind of hope for humanity, because these gardens are amazing and they all exist because people worked hard mostly in their free time to create them. Just because they love gardens.

I’m half excited and half pure panicked about the thought of setting up our own community garden at the precinct. So much work, so much I don’t know. So I’ve been visiting lots of people and talking things through.

I know that’s not the same as doing it of course. Our first event to build some herb beds and plant some sack gardens is Saturday and I’m pretty scared.

Still, look at what is possible.

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This might just be my favourite — they have boats after all, and sit alongside the water and have an old routemaster puppet bus.Who can compete with that?

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Stephen Shiell working with local residents has built one hell of a beautiful garden in this very industrial space, a place of wonder even on a bitterly cold February morning.

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Dancing grasses, a splendid area of bog, an unexpectedly successful succulent garden that stunned everyone with its flowers

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A scattering of art across the landscape, like these wind pipes and a living woven fence of willow. I confess, I never knew this was possible with willow. I can’t wait to see it after it leafs out (though some of it has died back, something about the site or the preparation not having been quite to its liking, and this is the greatest lesson I have taken away from all of these gardens. You never really know what will happen and everything will still be okay):

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They have built these beautiful and very simple glass lids to some of the growing beds that we might want to consider for the end of this year so we can start some seeds early (a bit too late now sadly!):

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An incredibly inspiring place I can’t wait to return to, especially as they are working to further reclaim the pathway along the canal, with its ancient reed beds and stillness in the heart of the city.

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Storm warnings were in force when Ana Mae Contreras showed me around several of the gardens on the estates, and despite that I got to see community building in action. Not much had happened at one of the gardens over the winter, so as soon as we started looking around people came down to find out when things were starting up again.

Nice.

As is the garden, built with strong scaffolding to grow kudu, a gourd popular in Bengali cooking:

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I am looking forward to growing some of this, and even more to learning how to cook it. They are in the middle of building a bottle greenhouse here, which I love (Stepney City Farm has a lovely one as well)

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They also have a nice and tidy composter, which might be useful for our gardens, though I think we have space for the more traditional kind and its much larger capacity.

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Just around the corner from here is a new orchard, which each of the fruit trees adopted and cared for by a family. I loved that, but my heart was truly stolen by an curious square of rubber set into the ground — turns out it is a trampoline, one big enough to hold three grown women sharing a moment of pure joy.

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Ten minutes away their youth project is working on their own garden — a different form of bed, and beautiful

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Walk down a narrow grassy alley perfect for hosting community cooks and food sharing, there are more immensely solid allotment beds:

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And this awesomeness still somewhat under construction:

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Woolwich Community Centre Garden

This was a little off the beaten track, but I went to an amazing training put together by the Greenwich Co-operative Development Agency on starting a community garden. I would highly recommend it. It walked us through thinking about everything we need to start a garden…this what we came up with

  • Space, soil, water, sun, gravel, compost
  • Raised beds for growing
  • seeds and plants
  • committed group to help start and manage gardens, but multiple opportunities for people to drop in and out, volunteer short term
  • process for access, managing security
  • meeting space, and place for planning building, crops, care
  • marketing to get people involved
  • fundraising, process to capacitate community to do the fundraising
  • budget
  • relationship with neighbouring gardens and city farms and allotments for resources and support
  • plan for statement of purpose as we can’t have simple allotments, how we might divide harvest, could we do some communal cooking
  • insurance

The training was about how we manage to pull together all of those things, and immensely useful.

The weather, as per usual, was freezing cold. It also rained.

Here is the garden at the centre:

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The best kind of compost system, and the kind we hope to build:

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A handy way to store things, especially all the bits you need to make bee houses:

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I would love to do a workshop building those. I’d also love one of these — a worm farm, useful for organic fertilisers, though I am as sold on nettle and comfrey teas.

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We definitely have a lot of work to do to be this amazing.

We’ve had more help from Caravanserai, Stepney City Farm, the Women’s Environmental Network and others still to get in touch with. There is so much happening around food growing and urban agriculture in Tower Hamlets, it is exciting to be a part of it.

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Earth’s a Roadside Picnic. Still, we live here

Roadside Picnic - The StrugatskysThe central idea of the Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic grows on me the more I sit with it, and it will forever undercut the more familiar heroic tales of encounter and discovery.

Aliens came, they stayed a while without saying hello and left without saying goodbye, having both transformed and trashed the places they inhabited around the world. Humans are left to shift through their incomprehensible and often deadly garbage. Ursula le Guin writes in the preface to this wonderful new translation:

Here, the visitors from space, if they noticed our existence at all, were evidently uninterested in communication; perhaps to them we were savages, or perhaps pack rats. There was no communication; there can be no understanding. (Le Guin – vii)

And there never is understanding, just a mix up of hope and fear. There is one scientist, Kirill, who sees in it the potential of knowledge and utopia and inspires Red, who works with him, just a little:

‘Mr Aloysius Macnaught!’ I say. ‘You are absolutely right. Our little town is a hole. Always was and always will be. Except right now,’ I say, ‘it’s a hole into the future. And the stuff we fish out of this hole will change the whole stinking world. Life will be different, the way it should be, and no one will want for anything. That’s our hole for you. There’s knowledge pouring through this hole. And when you figure it out, we’ll make everyone rich, and we’ll fly to the stars, and we’ll go wherever we want. That’s the kind of hole we have here…’

At this point I trail off, because I notice that Ernie is looking at me in astonishment, and I feel embarrassed. (42)

Because while this is Red drunkenly speaking, these are Kirill’s words, Kirill’s utopia. It’s possibly what the zone could have meant, or could always partially mean and what remains part of its lure. It is always the promise held out by science, the bright and shining dream of it. It’s not completely disproven here, but questioned.

I love that these new translations have afterwords from Boris. He describes the process, and shares the Strugatskys’ notes for the story written in February of 1970. This after wandering ‘the deserted, snow-covered streets’ of Komarovo on the Gulf of Finland, with all its resonance as a retreat for poets and scientists and writers of what was then Leningrad…I so want to go.

The growth of superstition, a department attempting to assume power through owning the junk, an organization seeking to destroy it (Knowledge fallen from the sky is useless and pernicious; any discovery could only lead to evil applications). Prospectors revered as wizards. A decline in the stature of science. (195-196)

Prospectors! It was only later they came up with stalkers, used the English word thus bringing it into the Russian language (very cool).

I do like the term prospectors though, this drunken dangerous lifestyle seeking fortune and escape is so reminiscent of prospecting. Even without understanding anything, some of the new technology can be put to work, money can be made. So corruption and dealing abound. Seemingly harmless things like batteries on the one hand, but so much of the detritus deals in death and disfigurement, and there has always been big money in those.

And there is poverty in this town. So you have the stalkers, men like Red who cross government lines to enter, to pick up what they can and sell it on the black market. The danger and skill and knowledge of the work has its on pull, but you can never forget the factors prodding men into it, particularly those who do not wish to spend their whole lives in jobs they hate to get nowhere:

Now I get really depressed. I’ll have to count every cent again: this I can afford, this I can’t. I’ll have to pinch pennies…No more bars, only cheap movies…And everything’s gray, all gray. Gray every day, and every evening, and every night. (47)

This is my own fear, that I will tumble into this. It fills book after worthy book, which is why I quite love sf that brings colour to the gray without denying its existence, that tells of wonder and danger and the exploration of the meanings of our lives in new ways. This is so much about how we are transformed by things beyond our understanding, whether it is technology or other human beings:

All these conversations had left a certain sediment in his soul, and he didn’t know what it was. it wasn’t dissolving with time, but instead kept accumulating and accumulating. And though he couldn’t identify it, it got in the way, as if he’d caught something from the Vulture… (162)

I love how this resonates with some discussions of cities, of formations of inequality in ghettos as sedimentation. But the alien artifacts have much deeper transformative effects — the children of the stalkers are not fully human and love for them and their loss is also central to this.

With the spread of the artifacts through channels legal and illegal, the rest of the world is slowly changing to. This shit can’t be contained.

I love how Roadside Picnic makes humanity the sideline, incidental to the big picture. I hate to drop that conceit even for a short time. But in many ways, of course, this could be read with ourselves as the aliens, forever transforming areas of the planet and sowing it with destruction for the species that live there. I see rivers flowing polluted with oil in my mind, like the recent spills into the Amazon. Chernobyl. Abandoned landscapes, extinctions. Scenes you stumble over everywhere humans have been, here in Bristol as eerily as almost anywhere.

Perhaps because humans are the sideline, they are allowed to just be with everything good and bad about them. But then, this is one of the things I particularly love about the Strugatskys. So does le Guin:

Humanity is not flattered, but it’s not cheapened. The authors’ touch is tender, aware of vulnerability. (vii)

And the ending, oh, I did love the ending. The awareness of just how little choice there ever was, just how little understanding. But the idea that that does not define your life, and it is something to be human.

Look into my soul, I know–everything you need is in there. It has to be. Because I’ve never sold my soul to anyone! It’s mine, it’s human! Figure out yourself what I want–because I know it can’t be bad!

And who doesn’t want this in the end? What better thing to wish for on a great golden ball that supposedly grants wishes, though someone must die springing the trap first, and so it is surrounded by splodges of soot.

‘HAPPINESS, FREE, FOR EVERYONE, AND LET NO ONE BE FORGOTTEN’ (193)

Reading Vandana Shiva for the first time

Vandana Shiva - Making Peace With the EarthVandana Shiva is pretty amazing. She makes a radical reframing of the environmental and social justice problems we face feel effortless. You can tell she’s been talking about this a while.

The struggle of a life.

The cover looks a little hippy of course, reading it on the train I imagine few people knew that the first chapter sub-title was something like ‘Eco-Apartheid as War’. I keep trying to give up my binaries, but the simplicity and clarity of this war is good for struggle, for knowing what you are fighting for:

There are two different paradigms for, and approaches to, the green economy. One is the corporate-centered green economy which means:

(a) Green Washing – one has just to look at the achievements of Shell and Chevron on how they are “green”

(b) Bringing nature into markets and the world of commodification. This includes privatisation of the earth’s resources, i.e., patenting seeds, biodiversity and life forms, and commodifying nature….(15)

Commodification and privatisation are based and promoted on the flawed belief that price equals value…

The second paradigm of the green economy is earth-centred and people-centred. the resources of the earth vital to life — biodiversity, water, air — are a commons for the common good for all, and a green economy is based on a recovery of the commons and the intrinsic value of the earth and all her species. (17)

I didn’t need the schooling on all the death-dealing and life-destroying actions of corporations in India to agree with that, but I did need to know more about what is actually happening — what other basis can we build solidarity in struggle upon? There is much here requiring tears and rage, and so much struggle to support and learn from. In these stories from India you can see that it is a war — that is often hidden from us here in the U.S., particularly those of us in cities already far removed from the earth and how we are killing it by siphoning off and centralising all of its resources.

Since corporate freedom is based on extinguishing citizen freedom, the enlargement of “free-market democracy” becomes a war against Earth Democracy.

Since the rules of free-markets and free trade aim at disenfranchising citizens and communities of their resources and rights, people resist them. The way against people is carried to the next level with the militarisation of society and criminalisation of activists and movements. (21)

Through their struggle against this, they are blazing the way forward for all of us and we need to not just challenge any attempt to criminalise it, but support and learn from it.

One of the key things I think is this:

LAND IS LIFE. It is the basis of livelihoods for peasants and indigenous people across the third world, and is also becoming the most vital asset in the global economy… Land, for most people in the world, is people’s identity, it is the ground of culture and economy. (30)

This attachment, love, need for land and home that goes far beyond sale price is something many academics (planners, capitalists) don’t understand. This is something I am so infuriated and also fascinated by — a little more than Shiva is. But of course competing understandings of land and value and their rootedness in histories and capitalism are needed to understand the present conflict and so they are here scattered through the book. Like this:

In India, land-grab is facilitated by a toxic mixture of the colonial Land Acquisition Act of 1894, the deregulation of investment and commerce through neoliberal policies, and the emergence of the rule of uncontrolled greed and exploitation. The World Bank has worked for many years to commodify land… (30-31)

This fundamental fact that almost no one publishing articles and books and displacing people seems to understand at all:

Money cannot compensate for the alienation of land. (31)

It goes far back, this idea that land is to be used to generate wealth — this is an amazing quote from Puritan settler of North America John Winthrop:

Natives in New England, they enclose no land, neither have they any settled habitation, nor any tame cattle to improve the land soe have no other but a Natural Right to those countries. Soe as if we leave them sufficient for their use, we may lawfully take the rest. (113)

That’s it in a nutshell really. Then there’s the East India Company, looking at land and its resources only for profit and conquest:

As Stebbing reported in 1805, a dispatch was received from the Court of Directors of the East India Company enquiring to what extent the King’s Navy might, in view of the growing deficiency of oak in England, depend on a permanent supply of teak timber from Malabar. Thus, the first real interest aroused in the forests of India originated from the colonial centre and the cause was the same as that which had kept forestry in the forefront of England through three centuries — the safety of the Empire, which depended upon its “wooden walls” — its supremacy at sea. When the British started exploiting Indian timber for military purposes, they did so rapaciously… (116)

She looks at ideas of value, where they come from:

As the ‘trade’ metaphor has come to replace the metaphor of ‘home’, economic value itself has undergone a shift. Value, which means ‘worth’, is redefined as ‘exchange and trade’, so unless somethings is traded it has no economic value…The ‘trade’ metaphor has also rendered nature’s economy valueless; the marginalisation of both women’s work and nature’s work are linked to how ‘home’ is now perceived as a place where nothing of economic value is produced.

This shift in the understanding of economic value is central to the ecological crisis and is reflected in the change in the meaning of the term ‘resource’. ‘Resource’ originally implied life…With the advent of industrialization and colonialism, however, a conceptual break  occurred. ‘Natural resources’ became those elements of nature which were required as inputs for industrial production and colonial trade.

The ways that this continues on into our worldview today:

Planners do not see our rivers as rivers of life, they see them as 20,000 megawatts of hydro-power. (92)

The ways this shifts everything:

World Bank loan conditionalities have many paradigm shifts built into them — the shift from “water for life” to “water for profits”; from “water democracy” to “water apartheid”; from “some for all” to “all for some”. (84)

The ways that this has shifted through the globalisation of capital and changing nature of corporations and profit-making is here as well, along with it’s impact on local and state sovereignty (things that most Americans never have to worry about, even as they are shifting these relationships around the world):

The Gopalpur steel plant is a product not of the “development” era, but of the globalisation era. Globalisation demands that local communities sacrifice their lives and livelihoods for corporate profit, development demanded that local communities give up their claim to resources and their sovereignty for national sovereignty. Globalisation demands that local communities and the country should both give up their sovereign rights for the benefit of global free trade. (40)

The companies making profits on land are very familiar:

Morgan Stanley purchased 40,000 ha. of farmland in Ukraine, and Goldman Sachs took over the Chinese poultry and meat industry in September 2008. Blackrock has set up a $200 million agricultural hedge fund, of which $30 million will acquire farmland. (157)

Their speculation in food is causing famine, and if you needed more than that, there’s a whole range of other evil and horrible things happening. There’s a whole lot I didn’t really know about GMOs about biofuels (instinctively you feel they must be better than oil, but think again).

At least 30 per cent of the global food price rise in 2008 was due to biofuels… (163)

On GMOs

the term ” high yielding varieties” is a misnomer because it implies that the new seeds are high yielding in and of themselves. The distinguishing feature of the new seeds, however, is that they are highly receptive to certain key inputs such as fertilisers and irrigation. Palmer therefore suggested the term “high responsive varieties” (HRV) be used instead. (141)

Genetic engineering has failed as a tool to control and has instead created super pests and super weeds, because it is based on a violence that ruptures the resilience and metabolism of the plant and introduces genes for producing or tolerating higher doses of toxins.  (148)

The peaceful coexistence of GMOs and conventional crops is a myth: environmental contamination via cross-pollination, which poses a serious threat to biodiversity, is unavoidable. (186)

On industrial production:

Overall, in energy terms, industrial agriculture is a negative energy system, using ten units of input to produce one unit of output. Industrial agriculture in the US uses 380 times more energy per ha. to produce rice than a traditional farm in the Philippines…(142)

On fertilisers, and the violence of industrial agriculture:

Fertilisers come from explosives factories. In recent years, in Oklahoma and Afghanistan, in Mumbai and Oslo, explosives factories were retooled to make fertiliser bombs. (148)

These are the fertilisers required to grow Monsanto’s crops, also required are pesticides. The violence there, apart from long terms damage to farmers and the planet and everything in the earth and water and air:

The pesticides which had created debt also became the source for ending indebted lives. Those who survive suicide in Punjab are dying of cancer. (149)

A farmer’s organisation presented information on 2,860 farmer suicides at public hearing on 8 September, 2006

All this when traditional and organic farming almost doubles the carbon sequestration efficiency, uses a tenth of the water. All this despite the reality that when we step outside the warped logics of capital, we know what’s what:

The solutions for the climate crisis, the food crisis, or the water crisis are the same: biodiversity-based organic farming systems. (154)

It is, as so many have explored, claimed, stated, based on diversity, interconnectedness, networks.

As the Knowledge Manifesto of the International Commission on the Future of Food and Agriculture states, the following principles are now generally accepted by the scientific community: (a) living and non-living systems are all dynamically interconnected, with the consequence that any change in one element will necessarily lead to not fully predictable changes in other parts of the network; (b) variability is the basis of change and adaptation while its absence leads inevitably to death; (c) living systems actively change the environment and are changed by it in a reciprocal way. (190)

Above all this is a book of struggle, of movements fighting back and learning from them what needs to be part of this struggle:

An ecological and feminist agenda for trade needs to be evolved based on the ecological limits and social criteria that economic activity must adhere to, if it is to respect the environmental principle pf sustainability and the ethical principle of justice. This requires that the full ecological and social costs of economic activity and trade be made visible and taken into account. Globalisation that erases ecological and social costs is inconsistent with the need to minimise environmental destruction and human suffering. Localisation – based on stronger democratic decision-making at local levels, building up to national and global levels — is an imperative for conservation as well as democracy. (257)

It holds the voices of different groups asserting different kinds of knowledges and ways of being on the earth that we must now look to for the future:

We, the forest people of the world–living in the woods, surviving on the fruits and crops, farming on the jhoom land, re-cultivating the forst land, roaming around with our herds — have occupied this land since ages. We announce loudly, in unity and solidarity, let there be no doubt on the future: we are the forests and forests are us, and our existence is mutually dependent. The crisis faced by our forests and environment today will only intensify without us.
–Excerpt from the Declaration of Nation Forum for Forest people and Forest Workers (69)

The need for new structures

Self-rule of communities is the basis for indigenous self-determination, for sustainable agriculture, and for democratic pluralism. (27)

I do love how Vandana Shiva wraps it all up (something I always struggle with). I know things are always messy, but I think in a struggle like this this is the kind of clarity most useful:

Humanity stands at a precipice. We have to make a choice. Will we continue to obey the market laws of corporate greed or Gaia’s laws for maintenance of the earth’s ecosystems and the diversity of her beings? The laws for maximising corporate profits are based on:

  1. Privatising the earth
  2. Enclosing the commons
  3. Externalising the costs of ecological destruction
  4. Creating corporate economies of death and destriction
  5. Destroying democracy
  6. Destroying cultural  diversity

The laws for protecting the rights of Mother Earth are based on:

  1. respecting the integrity of the earth’s ecosystems and ecological processe
  2. Recovery of the commons
  3. Internalising ecological costs
  4. Creating living economies
  5. Creating living democracies
  6. Creating living cultures (264-265)

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Root Shock pt 1 — Urban Renewal and Public Health

Root Shock - Mindy Thompson FulliloveThis is one of the few books that really tries to come to grips with the deep psychological trauma caused by mass displacement — what it calls Root Shock. It does so through the prism of urban renewal and reminds us of the scale of it. The program ran  from 1949 to 1973, and during this time the U.S. government bulldozed 2,500 neighborhoods in 993 cities, dispossessing an estimated million people. They were supposed to be slum clearances, they were supposed to create space for new housing. Few of these clearances did, and we are still coming to grips with what was lost. But there is a bitter truth behind the switch from ‘urban’ to ‘Negro’ removal — it is the Black community that lost the most and that continues to be most impacted by it all.

What was it, then, that was lost?

…the collective loss. It was the loss of a massive web of connections–a way of being–that had been destroyed by urban renewal; it was as if thousands of people who seemed to be with me in sunlight, were at some deeper level of their being wandering lost in a dense fog, unable to find one another for the rest of their lives. It was a chorus of voices that rose in my head, with the cry, “We have lost one another.” (4)

I like this understanding of it. I also quite love that despite a clinician trying to deepen our understanding of the psychological impacts, she maintains a larger understanding of just what is happening.

This process taught me a new respect for the story of upheaval. It is hard to hear, because it is a story filled with a  large, multivoiced pain. it is not a pain that should be pigeonholed in a diagnostic category, but rather understood as a communication about human endurance in the face of bitter defeat. (5)

And you know I love the spatial awareness that has to be part of this, because it is a physical loss of building, home, neighbourhood, as much as a loss of connection.

Buildings and neighborhoods and nations are insinuated into us by life; we are not, as we like to think, independent of them. (10-11)

So how does Fullilove define Root Shock?

Root shock is the traumatic stress reaction to the destruction of all or part of one’s emotional ecosystem. It has important parallels to the physiological shock experience by a person who, as a result of injury, suddenly loses massive amounts of fluids. Such a blow threatens the whole body’s ability to function…. Just as the body has a system to maintain its internal balance, so, too, the individual has a way to maintain the external balance between himself and the world. This way of moving in the environment…. (11)

It is not something that is experienced right away and then disappears.

The experience of root shock–like the aftermath of a severe burn–does not end with emergency treatment, but will stay with the individual for a lifetime. In fact, the injury from root shock may be even more enduring than a burn, as it can affect generations and generations of people.

Root shock, at the level of the individual, is a profound emotional upheaval that destroys the working model of the world that had existed in the individual’s head. (14)

This book is interladen with quotes and stories from people Fullilove worked with, she cares like I do to let people speak for themselves about their experience. She quotes Carlos Peterson, on the bulldozing of his neighbourhood:

‘My impression was that we were like a bunch of nomads always fleeing, that was the feeling I had.” (13)

There is Sala Uddin, who remembered urban renewal first with approval — the new homes they were getting, then:

Critiquing his own earlier enthusiasm, he pointed out to me, “We didn’t know what impact the amputation of the lower half of our body would have on the rest of our body until you look back twenty years later, and the rest of your body is really ill because of that amputation.

The sense of fragmentation is a new experience that we can now sense, that we didn’t sense then. We were all in the same location before. Now we are scattered literally to the four corners of the city, and we are not only politically weak, we are not a political entity. We are also culturally weak. And I think that has something to do with the easiness of hurting each other. How easy it is to hurt each other, because we are not that close anymore. We are not family anymore. (175)

Because she is able to listen, she is able to describe the ways that people are connected both to buildings, but also to each other. I love how from multiple angles, the human connections to the earth, to the built environment and to each other always emerge as key to lives well-lived, whether looking at permaculture or public space or psychology:

This lesson of interconnectedness is as hard to learn as differential calculus or quantum mechanics. the principle is simple: we–that is to say, all people–live in an emotional ecosystem that attaches us yo the environment, not just as our individual selves, but as being caught in a single, universal net of consciousness anchored in small niches we call neighborhoods or hamlets or villages. Because of the interconnectedness of the net, if your place is destroyed today, I will feel it hereafter. (17)

This brings a new look at Jane Jacob‘s street ballet, where

you are observing the degree to which people can adapt to different settings, and not just adapt, but attach, connect. They are connecting not to the negatives or even the positives of the setting, but to their own mastery of the local players and their play. (19)

I am quite intrigued by this idea:

Instead, the geography created by dispersal-in-segregation created a group of islands of black life. “Archipelago” is the official geographic term for a group of islands. Black America is an archipelago state, a many-island nation within the American nation. The Creation of the archipelago nation had two consequences for African Americans. The first is that the ghettos became centers of black life; the second is that the walls of the ghetto, like other symbols of segregation, became objects of hatred. In this ambivalent, love/hate relationship, it was impossible to chose to dwell. Yet people did choose to make life as vibrant and happy as they possibly could. (27)

This feels particularly true of earlier periods when the colour lines were hard and fast and patrolled by white mobs and white gangs and the use of violence. When green books were necessary when travelling to know where to stay, what to eat safe from the oceans of white hatred (too far? Not in terms of the hatred, but maybe in terms of metaphor…) When the ghetto walls were high and strong and each brick legally protected, which is part of the story and the trauma of urban renewal’s root shock. For so long people faced the choice: to fight to improve the ghetto or the fight to leave it. Regardless, she captures something of what the ghetto cost the city as a whole:

Segregation in a city inhibits the free interaction among citizens and invariably leads to a brutality and inequality, which themselves are antithetical to urbanity. When segregation disappears, freedom of movement becomes possible. that does not necessarily mean that people will want to leave the place where they have lived. The ghetto ceases to be a ghetto, it is true, but it does not stop being a neighborhood of history. Postsegregation, the African-American ghetto would have been a sight for imaginative re-creation , much like the ghetto in Rome. (45)

She writes later on:

The divided city is a subjugated city. (164)

The tragedy always was this inisght, again from Jane Jacobs  (as summarised by Fullilove):

A slum would endure if residents left as quickly as they could. A neighborhood could transform itself, if people wanted to stay. It was the investment of time, money  and love that would make the difference. (44)

That was almost never allowed to happen. Instead neighbourhoods were bulldozed — and again there is the comparison to rubble left by war, similar to Dybek, to Gbadamosi:

Indeed, in looking at American urban renewal projects I am reminded more of wide-area bombing–the largely abandoned World War II tactic of bombing major parts of cities as we did in Wurzeburg, Germany and Hiroshima, Japan–than of elegant city design. (70)

It was done in the most destructive way possible:

Even though the basis for compensation was gradually extended, the payments continued to be linked to individual property rights. Collective assets — the social capital created by a long-standing  community–were not considered in the assessment of property values. (79)

There is not enough on why I think, which limits the section thinking through what we can do to stop it. But there is this quote from Reginal Shereef, who studies the effects of urban renewal on African Americans in Roanoke:

“But the reality of urban renewal was that cities wanted to improve their tax base. And that is my interest. I have always looked at the intersections between public policy and economics. And what happened in Roanoke was neighborhoods was torn down so that commercial developers could develop prperties and sell it to private interests…” (98)

Part 2 looks at some of the positive ways to think of community, ways that we can work to preserve and improve our neighourhoods. But I’ll end this with one of the lovelier expressions of what home means to people, this from resident Dolores Rubillo:

“People know, you know where you are–” and, leaning in to me added, “you are safe in the dark.” (127)

 

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