Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Counter-Culture: Cities Don't Protect Nature

"Big lies have little lies upon their backs to bite 'em, And little lies have lesser lies, and so, ad infinitum." -  Pseudosiphonaptera

Modern Lisbon
This new "Counter-Culture" series endeavours to unpack a number of false premises, sweet little lies that humanity as led by Western society has been telling itself over the last couples of centuries, lies that are fully entrenched in our systems of education, law and media to the point they are accepted as truisms, how things are and ought to be.

Lie #1: Civilisation is Good (Finally)

Civilisation is quite literally the process of seizing the savage, brute, barbarian and converting him to be a citizen, a dweller of the city. Historically this had never been a voluntary process. Ancient cities that arose in the Mesopotamia, the Indus and Nile valleys were renown for founding and enlarging their cities on the backs of slaves. Most often conscription to the city was accomplished by standing armies at the point of a sword. On rare occasion of extreme famine i.e., surrounding peasants would "voluntarily" sell themselves into an extended period of indentured servitude.

This general pattern continued through the rise of various Asian and American empires, the Persians, Greeks and of particular note the Romans from whom we're indebted to all of the Latin vocabulary we use in reference to the city. They all operated more or less the same. Sometimes offering the carrot, more often brandishing the stick in obligating their own people, then outsiders through conquest to support their cities. Neither is this a matter of just ancient history. Indentured servitude of the country peasant population into the cities of Europe was the motive force behind the (ongoing) Industrial Revolution. Chattel slavery as excercised by the Islamic and Christian civilisations was widespread in colonial Africa and the Americas for hundreds of years. Two world wars followed by a long cold war were fought throughout the 20th century over who had the right to reconcile unto their  vision of a brave new world what remained of the savage third world still outside of civilisation.

Certainly that was the past, a necessary if painful stage in human development? Perhaps the millions of corpses and inconceivable suffering experienced in the transition towards further civilisation can be counted against the uncivilised: those tribes, villages and aesthetic communities resisting such assimilation. After all, how can one deny the rise and dominance of civilisation as being that which is responsible for the rapid advances in human progress? The civilised are beneficiaries of higher education, longer life expectancy, reduced child mortality all accompanied by a resulting population explosion not to mention the material comforts of air conditioning, conveniences of modern transport and access to the sum total of human knowledge at our fingertips through technology. Don't we believe that we're better, superior, approaching the very pinnacle of what is is to be human...finally, to be good?

The aforementioned does seem to paint a grim picture of the rise of civilisation. To be fair it's not as though life outside of the city was free of conflict, pain and suffering. In many respects the attraction of the city is it's subjugation of nature, the offer of shelter from many of life's uncertainties. A sacrifice of autonomy and self-determination for subjection to a system of imposed order also promises protection from the 'other', alien if not outright hostile groups of human beings.

Lie #2: Man is a Domesticable Animal

It is hard to deny that mankind in general can be effectively coerced and manipulated. For example, the institution of slavery depended upon the cooperation of those enslaved (an highly unpalatable statement). Yet, it is impossible to maintain a system of slavery if everyone refuses to cooperate. However, the threat of death and torture against a man himself or especially directed towards his family is enough to get most men to capitulate. Of course, there is always a minority that will refuse under any circumstances but we know what became of them...a warning example to the rest. Nevertheless, the coercion exerted by slave-holding societies, totalitarian regimes and such like systems of direct oppression reliant primarily upon physical force for the control of population, is resource intensive and too costly to maintain for any extended period of time.

So that brings up another prominent feature of civilisation: education. The religious and aristocratic elite of ancient cities were the educated class. As such they were stewards of literacy and numeracy but also the narratives that provided an identity and structure for the common people to adopt. For thousands of years it was generally held that is was best to restrict education, that the commoners would be easier to control if they were ignorant of arts and letters. A major shift took place in the 19th century, spurred on by the need for laborers in the factories of the Industrial Revolution. State funded and state determined education for everyone became absolutely mandatory. Why the dramatic shift? As it turned out sequestering children away from their parents and communities throughout their entire childhood proved a very effective means of conditioning them for a lifetime to serve the needs of industry and the state above all other considerations.

Children are the most vulnerable members of a society. They have few rights, none they can assert on their own behalf. Of course, instinctively we know there is nothing more confessedly unnatural for a child then to have it sit down, be quiet and take academic instruction for 8 hours a day. Yet this is the standard programme from a minimum of 12 to upwards of 20 years. The ostensible subject matter of reading, writing, arithmetic or history are just of incidental practical benefit to industry, the state and other bureaucracies. What it takes a dozen or more years of costly investment to achieve is a broken spirit forever compliant to authority.

And even so humans rebel despite the uncompromising and powerful systems, all of the social pressures to conform. We know what to do with adults who won't conform; however, for children these rebellious traits manifest in school have systematically been classified as a disease. Parents are called upon to understand that their child is defective (not the system); however, there is a remedy with drug therapy as provided by medical experts. As of this writing the move is towards gene therapy as a final solution. How many parents have been so successfully educated that they now act as leading participants in the crushing of their own children?

Lie #3: The Density of the City Protects Nature

In the year 1800 only about 3% of the world's population lived in cities. Two centuries later, it's over 50% and over 75% in the West. City after city in the Western world exhibit a repetitive pattern. The historic city centers are significantly occupied by investors, many of them leveraging the properties as short term rentals to tourists. In Europe these city centres are eclipsed by a fat ring of industrial tower blocks where most of the population now live. In the United States and Canada this ring is more likely to be composed of suburban sprawl. Urbanisation in the United Kingdom finds itself somewhere in between. Meanwhile the countryside has emptied out, just a fraction of the population it once was in most places. Asia, the Indian subcontinent, South America and even now Africa are rapidly industrialising and following these Western models of urbanisation.

Most folks probably look at that as a good thing. God help us if all those people were spread out all over the world, there'd be nothing left! So I propose the initiating axiom of such or similar reasoning goes something like this: "Humans are locusts, consumptive destruction ensues wherever they go. Best to keep them contained. The density of the modern city is our best bet."

Perhaps it is possible for humans to become something like locusts, hordes of irreflective consumers of resources. However, I don't believe for a moment that is anything like our natural state of being. When Europeans arrived to the Americas they found the indigenous people to be indolent, lazy not having brought the land up in their view to its productive capabilities or having established a proper civilisation. However, the native tribes knew their home territory well and what may have first appeared to an outsider as men living as animals in wild nature was in fact a cultivated garden under man's influence. Not only was the indigenous American way of life sustainable, it was generative of life and of an enhanced productive capacity of their environment.

European village life prior to industrialisation provides another instructive example. Building materials were produced locally. Stone, earth, wood, thatch, terra cotta are examples of materials available in many areas. Villages grew spatially in adaptation primarily to the terrain as well as human and animal needs. Arable land was sacrosanct. Building often took place on areas more difficult to build and not suitable for agriculture. Architecture was not viewed as a consumable (like food) rather an heritable investment and was built in a way to endure and be expanded upon. Villages were spatially arranged so as to provide privacy as well as communal meeting places. The farmers and craftsmen that inhabited these villages did not simply look at their flocks, fields and forests as detached raw material to be exploited and consumed rather as a responsibility of stewardship that had been entrusted to them to cultivate and pass on to their children.

Cities and civilisation on the other hand has been consistently shown to shift the psychological state of man towards one of consumption. There is the physical daily separation from nature, from one's sources of food, clothes, shelter and medicine. These necessities cease to be things cultivated within the context of a community and instead are resources to be purchased and consumed within a system. After two or three generations of living in a tower block i.e., any cultural memory of the former possible way of life and accompanying capacity for living outside a prescribed system of law and codification is lost. Instead of being hyper-conscious of nature as it is embedded into your daily life, nature is thought of as something "out there" completely detached. In practical terms the countryside has been abandoned to coroporations that lead an extraction economy that feeds the endless hunger of a consumer marketplace.

This is not to hold up tribal or village life is an utopian ideal. However, they do serve as proof positive that man can be something other than a consuming locust; we have the innate capacity for stewardship and further generation of life. Tribes are all but extinct as a means of human society; however, we can still walk the underpopulated villages and extract valuable lessons in addressing our present problems of energy consumption, pollution and environmental degradation. Cities don't protect nature rather their detached systems exploit her; however, engaged and responsible human beings can heal and steward nature. That's the lesson to be learned from our forefathers.

 Contributed by Patrick Webb

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