by Liam Heneghan
“Industries have been migrating steadily from the larger cities, leaving behind a lazarus stratum of the urban population that exists partly on the dole, partly on crime, partly on the sick fat of the city… Nothing more visibly reveals the overall decay of the modern city than the ubiquitous filth and garbage in its streets, the noise and massive congestion that fills its thoroughfares, the apathy of its population toward civic issues and the ghastly indifference of the individual toward the physical violence that is publicly inflicted on the other members of the community.” Murray Bookchin (1979) Limits of the City Black Rose Books (reprinted in 1996).
“The more it [the city] concentrates the necessities of life the more unlivable it becomes. The notion that happiness is possible in a city, that life there is more intense, pleasure is enhanced, and leisure time more abundant is mystification and myth.” Henri Lefebvre, The Urban Revolution, 2003 (1970)
Despite our brooding discontent, our lingering sense that our environing world is in decline, that the world around us is aflame with war, famine, disease, climate weirdness, that our cities are unlivable, that our economies are doomed to collapse, that we are brotherly and sisterly no more, that under our use and abuse, nature’s web is frayed and weary; despite all of this, surely our best days should be ahead of us?
We are, after all, a vernal species, freshly minted by evolutionary processes dating back no more than a couple of hundred thousand years. If a species typically sticks around a million years, by simple calculation we have run less than a quarter of our course. Can we really have squandered all of our chances so very soon? In a recent project poet Chris Green and I ask, paraphrasing Seamus Heaney, if poets, artists, creative writers, philosophers, and photographers, can help redress the environmental problems that beset us. Artists who live where the flames rise highest, that is in cities – seemingly the very epicenter of our crises, cannot necessarily be appealed to for succor in tough times. Good art after all may do very little, but by the reckless blaze of good work, surely we can see the new terrain in all its ambiguity and complexity, and re-envision the task ahead in a more hopeful way than we have become used to.
Our natural proclivities equip us for debacle and solution in seemingly equal measure. Primates, such as we are, are characterized by generalized natures, there is little that is distinctive about all of us other than our lack of distinction. Said another way we have evolutionary suppleness – a commitment to innovation. We humans, for instance, having no specialized defense mechanisms – we exude no toxic or noisome chemicals, our teeth may gnash but rarely assail, we have no carapace to shield our moist vulnerability. Biological features noteworthy about us are extensions of our beastly condition: we are mobile, and we have brains swollen like ripe fruit atop erect bodies; clever apes that we are, we have perfected the manipulation of the surrounding world in a manner that extends our reach beyond bodily limitations – technology, another extension of primate innovation, is our ecology. For ninety-nine percent of our history we exclusively gathered, and occasionally hunted, and our numbers were modest; we lived within the confines of local ecological systems. Though perennially extending our range, pullulating out from our African home-range to encompass much of the inhabitable earth, we have generally been more constrained by nature, than we were a strain on nature. A mere geological moment ago, everything changed. Ten thousand years ago we became dramatically less mobile, we cultivated and accumulated rather than collected, we domesticated plants and animals, and indeed we ultimately domesticated ourselves. The reverberations of this agricultural revolution, this domestication revolution, are still omnipresent. Anthropologists inform us that civilization and its accoutrements: permanent architecture, metallurgy, writing, villages, towns and cities, are aftershocks of the agricultural revolution.
About one year ago, a decided marker in the quarter million year gestation of this species was reached. Our primate tendencies of mobility, braininess, dexterousness, and suppleness, characteristics that had served us handsomely on the savannas of the world had resulted in the completion of the following colossal transition: we had now become an urban species. More than fifty per cent of the world’s population now lives in cities!
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