[iDC] The Utopian Imperative in an Age of Catastrophe

Michael Bauwens michelsub2003 at yahoo.com
Wed Feb 11 11:50:02 UTC 2009

Essay: Who Will Build the Ark? The Utopian Imperative in an Age of Catastrophe by Mike Davis in Telepolis
URL = http://brechtforum.org/who-will-build-ark-utopian-imperative-age-catastrophe?bc= 

This is one of the most riveting and interesting essays I have read
in a long while. I strongly recommend it as a indispensable must-read. 
This essay by Mike Davis has two parts. 

In the first, Pessimism of the Intellect, he reviews the
evidence for climate change, as well as attempts to change the
situation and finds that most worst-case scenarios imagined by the
scientists have already been exceeded, which means that we may have
already reached the tipping point which makes dislocation inevitable.
Because the solution would demand an enlightened reaction by the
privileged, it is highly unlikely that the necessary changes will take
place. In fact, there is evidence that the elites are already preparing
lifeboat scenarios for their entrenched survival amidst global chaos. 

In the second part, the author switches to the Optimism of the
Imagination and finds an unlikely possibility: the greening and
democratic reform of city life. He outlines both the negative and
positive aspects of cities from an environmental point of view. 

Here are the positive ones:
urban growth preserves open space and vital natural systems 
well-defined boundaries between city and preserved countryside; 
waste is recycled, not exported downstream 
strict regulation of automobile use 
environmental economies of scale in transportation and residential construction; 
the substitution of public luxury for privatized consumption; 
the socialization of desire and identity within public space; 
affordable access to city centers from periphery 
egalitarian public services 
large domains of public or non-profit housing 
ethnic and income heterogeneity at fractal scales of city 
powerful capacities for progressive taxation and planning in the public interest 
high levels of political mobilization and civic participation 
public landscapes designed with children, seniors and special needs in mind 
rich dialectics of neighborhood and world culture; 
the priority of civic memory over proprietary icon; 
spatial integration of work, recreation and home-life."


Mike Davis: 

"Such sharp demarcations between 'good' and 'bad' features of
city life are redolent of famous attempts in the previous century to
distill a canonical urbanism or anti-urbanism: Lewis Mumford and Jane
Jacobs, Frank Lloyd Wright and Walt Disney, Corbusier and the CIAM
manifesto, the 'New Urbanism' of Andres Duany and Peter Calthorpe, and
so on. But no one needs 'urban theorists' to have eloquent opinions
about virtues and vices of the urban built environments and the kinds
of social interactions they foster or discourage. Especially here in
Munich, with a rich conjugation of different periods and conditions. 

What often goes unnoticed in such moral inventories, however,
is the consistent affinity between social and environment justice,
between the communal ethos and a greener urbanism. Their mutual
attraction is magnetic if not inevitable. The conservation of urban
green spaces and waterscapes, for example, serves simultaneously to
preserve vital natural elements of urban metabolism while providing
leisure and cultural resources for the popular classes. Reducing
suburban gridlock with better planning and more public transit turns
traffic sewers back into neighborhood streets while reducing greenhouse

There are innumerable examples and they all point toward to a
single unifying principle: namely, that the cornerstone of the
low-carbon city, far more than any particular green design or
technology, is the priority given to public affluence over private
wealth. As we all know, several additional Earths would be required to
allow all of humanity to live in a suburban house with two cars and a
lawn, and this obvious constraint is sometimes evoked to justify the
impossibility of reconciling finite resources with rising standards of
living. Most contemporary cities, in rich countries or poor, repress
the potential environmental efficiencies inherent in human settlement
density. The ecological genius of the city remains a vast, largely
hidden power. 

But there is no planetary shortage of 'carrying capacity' if we
are willing to make democratic public space, rather than modular,
private consumption, the engine of sustainable equality. Public
affluence - represented by great urban parks, free museums, libraries,
and infinite possibilities for human interaction - represents an
alternative route to a rich standard of life based on earth-friendly,
carnivalesque sociality. Although seldom noticed by academic urban
theorists, university campuses are often little quasi-socialist
paradises around rich public spaces for learning, research,
performance, and human reproduction. 

The utopian ecological critique of the modern city was
pioneered by socialists and anarchists, beginning with Guild
Socialism's dream (influenced by the bioregionalist ideas of Kropotkin,
and later, Geddes) of garden cities for re-artisanized English workers,
and ending with the bombardment of the Karl-Marx-Hauf - Red Vienna's
great experiment in communal living - during the Austrian Civil War in
1934. In between are the invention of the kibbutz by Russian and Polish
socialist, the modernist social housing projects of the Bauhaus, and
the extraordinary debate over urbanism conducted in the Soviet Union
during the 1920s. 
This radical urban imagination was a victim of the tragedies of
the 1930s and 1940s. Stalinism, on one hand, veered toward a
monumentalism in architecture and art, inhumane in scale and texture,
that was little different from the Wagnerian hyperboles of Albert Speer
in the Third Reich. Postwar Social Democracy, on the other hand,
abandoned alternative urbanism for a Keynesian mass housing policy that
emphasized economies of scale in high-rise projects on cheap suburban
estates, and thereby uprooted traditional working-class urban

Yet the late-nineteenth-century and early-twentieth century
conversations about the 'socialist city' provide invaluable starting
points for thinking about the current planetary crisis. Consider, for
example, the Constructivists. El Lissitzy, Melnikov, Leonidov, Golosov
and the Vesnin brothers are probably not familiar names, but these
brilliant socialist designers - constrained by early Soviet urban
misery and a drastic shortage of public investment - proposed to
relieve congested apartment life with splendidly designed workers
clubs, people's theaters, and sports complexes. They gave urgent
priority to the emancipation of proletarian women through the
organization of communal kitchens, day nurseries, public baths, and
cooperatives of all kinds. Although they envisioned workers clubs and
social centers, linked to vast Fordist factories and eventual high-rise
housing, as the 'social condensers' of a new proletarian civilization,
they were also elaborating a practical strategy for leveraging poor
urban workers' standard of living in otherwise austere circumstances. 

In the context of global environmental emergency, this
Constructivist project could be translated into the proposition that
the egalitarian aspects of city life consistently provide the best
sociological and physical supports for resource conservation and carbon
mitigation. Indeed, there is little hope of mitigating greenhouse
emissions or adapting human habitats to the Anthropocene unless the
movement to control global warming converges with the struggle to raise
living standards and abolish world poverty. And in real life, beyond
the IPCC's simplistic scenarios, this means participating in the
struggle for democratic control over urban space, capital flows,
resource-sheds, and large-scale means of production. 

I think the inner crisis in environmental politics today is
precisely the lack of bold concepts that address the challenges of
poverty, energy, biodiversity, and climate change within an integrated
vision of human progress. At a micro-level, of course, there have been
enormous strides in developing alternative technologies and passive
energy housing, but demonstration projects in wealthy communities and
rich countries will not save the world. The more affluent, to be sure,
can now choose from an abundance of designs for eco-living: but what is
the ultimate goal: to allow well-meaning celebrities to brag about
their zero-carbon lifestyles or to bring solar energy, toilets,
pediatric clinics and mass transit to poor urban communities?" 

"Tackling the challenge of sustainable urban design for the
whole planet, and not just for a few privileged countries or social
groups, requires a vast stage for the imagination, such as the arts and
sciences inhabited in the May days of Vhutemas and the Bauhaus. It
presupposes a radical willingness to think beyond the horizon of
neo-liberal capitalism toward a global revolution that reintegrates the
labor of the informal working classes, as well as the rural poor, in
the sustainable reconstruction of their built environments and

Of course, this is an utterly unrealistic scenario, but one
either embarks on a journey of hope, believing that collaborations
between architects, engineers, ecologists, and activists can play
small, but essential roles in making an alter-monde more possible, or
one submits to a future in which designers are just the hireling
imagineers of elite, alternative existences. The planetary 'green
zones' may offer pharaonic opportunities for the monumentalization of
individual visions, but the moral questions of architecture and
planning can only be resolved in the tenements and sprawl of the 'red

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