City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

20. Wait, what?

Written in


Afternoon walk, Enskede 2 May 2020

I know what you did last summer

The first reaction upon hearing reports of troops from the billion people-strong nations of China and India engaged in a fatal skirmish in the mountains, two advanced nations deploying rocks, sticks, and earthworks in almost neolithic manner, is to wonder why 2020 seems quite so determined to tick off every prediction in the dystopian futurist’s playbook by the middle of the year. Yet even this incomprehensible flashpoint is but a minor detail in the broader scheme of things.

A month later, China and Japan are facing their worst floods in decades. Two months later, wildfires burn in California and Argentina, and then two months later again, there are unprecedented blazes in Brazil’s tropical wetlands. Two months after that, by September, the wildfires throughout North America’s west have reached continental scale, reaching up to Washington from California, leading to ‘end of days’ headlines. Flora is growing back over Australia’s scorched earth while this happens, but we are now only a few months away from entering bushfire season again. TikTok tiptoes into the metaphorical Berlin Wall for a new kind of Cold War. Or maybe Hong Kong is the new Berlin Wall? Or perhaps Taiwan is? Afghan opium farmers have installed their own version of the Green New Deal, increasing the world supply of heroin, whereas England is transitioning its green fields into post-Brexit lorry parks. Kanye West launches his presidential bid on an anti-vaccine, pro-Elon Musk, anti-abortion, pro-God, anti-chips-embedded-in-our-bodies platform. Or he may not have done any such thing. The abalone decide that the water in Tokyo Bay is now too hot. Trump is opening up battles on both Western and Far Eastern fronts, sending Federal troops into battle in Portland and Seattle whilst repeatedly goading an increasingly confident China. Economies in the US and Europe record their sharpest declines since records began, whilst the US tech giants report a $28.6 billion quarterly net profit from the lockdown period a day after facing a congressional anti-trust committee questioning the extent of their power. And amidst all this, a global pandemic. By August, many nations have released their initial lockdowns just as the coronavirus that precipitated them is picking up its rate of global infection, killing hundreds of thousands of people by the middle of the year and sending national economies spiralling. By September, the lockdowns are descending again. (It seems barely worth mentioning in this context, as it feels like years since Trump’s impeachment ended with in acquittal—yet it was only back in February. That historic event is entirely lost in the subsequent noise.)

By the time you read this, that entire paragraph will no doubt feel out of date. It’s hard to truly get behind Swiss journalist Rolf Dobelli’s suggestion to stop reading the news, but some days it feels like an entirely appropriate strategy.

Spooling back a little, away from the mouth of that firehose, we recall that the year started with the vast bushfires along Australia’s eastern seaboard, fires so fierce that they created their own weather systems, scorched 27 million acres, killed or displaced around 3 billion animals, and destroyed many thousands of homes. (Note also American hyperbole; the Australian fires were 10–15 times larger than the 2020 American equivalent, at least of time of writing. Though it’s not a competition.)

The fires held the national, and sometime global, consciousness in its grip, as they grew to become what David Bowman described as “our bushfire Gallipoli”, building to a scale that provoked questions as to how long Australia will remain liveable.

These fires were unprecedented. Of course, there has always been fire in Australia, with Aboriginal Australians artfully using it as a landscape-shaping tool. But these fires were different. Unlike careful, intentional, and strategic indigenous fire practices, these fires were started by the collective action of Australians, as if the nation itself was an errant teenager with a box of matches and a grudge to bear. They were consciously induced by the climate crisis that modern Australia has created — the country has had enough warnings — thanks to its ongoing and significant contribution to global emissions via both production and consumption, with the country being ranked last out of 57 nations in terms of climate action.

At home, Australia has produced the perfect tinder box, with these fires exploiting the enduring drought conditions created through careless land- and water-use, by building in the wrong way in the wrong place, by deforestation, by destroying biodiversity, or by cutting fire service budgets, or by pulling funding from climate science. This is the way in which they are unprecedented: the fires were initiated by our collective action globally, and they thrived by exploiting the apparently deliberate weaknesses folded into our patterns of habitation locally.

But by mid-February, the fires were largely forgotten, even at that epic scale. By then, the world’s attention was beginning to be drawn to the coronavirus pandemic dubbed COVID-19. The virus is similar to the fires, in that it is also created by our activity, and also thrives in the gaps created by the careless fractures produced in our societies. Although less easy to prove directly, most experts in the field draw a clear link between the increased likelihood of zoonotic diseases emerging and recent patterns of human development; in other words, the same moves that had created the climate crisis — and so extreme events such as the Australian and American bushfires — had also colluded to produce COVID-19. So as with the bushfires, a climate crisis and health crisis converge in one planetary-scale condition.

The vast majority of Black Lives Matter protests were peaceful; the handful of violent others were provoked by external agitators, police, or National Guard. Occasionally, though, cities burned too during the summer of 2020.

It seems as if the entire concept of what Éric Charmes and Max Rousseau call ‘planetary urbanization’ is placed in question at various points between April and August 2020. In their article for Public Books/La Vie des Idées, ‘It’s the geography stupid! Planetary urbanization revealed’, Charmes and Rousseau pick apart how zoonotic diseases are initiated to over-development, and then transported over optimised globalised trade networks. A simple observation provokes vertiginous shifts of scale: they note that 800 years ago the Black Death took 15 years to travel the Silk Road to reach Europe, whereas COVID-19 will have taken about 15 hours.

We can pick apart the absurdity of this in many ways. As Charmes and Rousseau implicitly suggest, it is both wondrous and woeful at once that “the residents of an average French city may employ the local plumber, but, at the same time, they eat meat from animals fed on Latin American soybean, watch television on Korean screens, or use Algerian petrol.” Or, more pertinently, how the virus itself travels with much the same fluidity. Reading passages like the following, it’s as if gossamer threads pulled across Calvino’s imaginary cities were barely imaginary enough to capture the reality of what we have built.

“International exchanges have become more complex and multi-scalar, in the sense that it is not France that has come into contact with China. Instead, the Contamines-Montjoie ski resort (one of the main initial clusters of the virus in France) found itself connected to a forest in Hubei via an English tourist returning from a conference in Singapore, where he had met other Chinese executives, one of whom may have dined with a doctor friend, who works in a hospital in Wuhan.”—Éric Charmes and Max Rousseau, ‘It’s the geography stupid! Planetary urbanization revealed’, Public Books/La Vie des Idées, 11 August 2020

In response to this shattering complexity, and with varying levels of effectiveness, nations lock down, or slow down, in order to contain the virus. As many of us have observed, a significant number of these manoeuvres — working and studying from home, moving locally and actively, retrofitting streets, emphasising green and blue spaces, flying less, shopping sustainably or simply consuming less, building care networks — happen to overlap with those required to address the climate crisis. That they happen to is not coincidental of course, further reinforcing that the climate criss and the virus are connected, with the latter merely a particularly virulent and destructive manifestation of the former.

Apparently within days of COVID grounding flights, switching off polluting chimneys, and stopping cars dead, the air cleared over some of most polluted places, waterways clear, wildlife returns to cities. Quickly, some municipalities responded by rushing through street modifications. They used the lulled environment, and the need to keep key workers moving via bike, foot, and limited public transport, in order to retrofit streets far more rapidly than previously planned for.

According to surveys of consumer behaviour, many people began to consume in more responsible fashion, limiting waste, making sustainable choices. Yet any purported increase in conviviality and community resilience is largely lost in the shadow of increases in domestic violence or quickly accumulating mental health and wellbeing issues. And of course the direct and deadly impact of the virus itself.

There are awful ironies hidden within disaster: in Poland’s 36,000 reported infections, about 6,500 are coal miners working in the country’s environment-destroying, heavily-polluting coal industry. The miners are nearly a fifth of all confirmed Polish cases, despite making up only 80,000 of the country’s 38 million people. In Melbourne, going back into lockdown in July having emerged from it in June, Premier Daniel Andrews says “Ultimately we have to take this as seriously as we take bushfire. This is binary. It is life and death.” Yet when he says “I think there’s been complacency and a sense of frustration” we’re not sure whether he’s talking about COVID, or Australia’s own mining industry that helped cause both the bushfires and the climate crisis (Andrews has at least tried to lead a shift towards renewable energy in his state).

As the response to the virus stretched throughout the first half of the year, well beyond the time usually taken to develop new habits, many of these new patterns of habitation may have begun to stick. These behaviour changes could be significant; in terms of emissions, it looked like we may have been close to achieving between a 7% and 17% drop by the end of 2020. At one point, it was the largest drop since the Second World War.

Yet As Fatih Birol, the executive director of the International Energy Agency, commented, the drop in emissions “is nothing to celebrate. It is not the result of policy. This decline will be easily erased if the right policy measures are not put in place.”

This is not the ‘just transition’ many are demanding. Far from it. And sure enough, the decline in emissions was indeed temporary, and being erased within a few months.

Given that the hand was forced, what also became quickly clear was that COVID-19 was also exploiting fault lines, just as with the bushfires. Not simply by tracing the globalised trade routes along which previous plagues had been transported, but also the way in which the infrastructure of everyday life had been allowed to become over-extended, fragile, brittle. The virus made quick work of systems optimised around short-term efficiency rather than long term resilience, around profit rather than social justice, and where just-in-time was, it turns out, just-not-in-time when it came to medical supplies and healthcare response.

Initially seen as a ‘great equaliser’, with both prime ministers and nurses catching the virus, COVID-19 turned out to be anything but. We soon discover that African Americans are dying from at almost three times the rate of white people (and in Kansas, black residents are currently dying at seven times the rate of whites.) (That was the information in May 2020. The APM Research project is tracking, ongoing, and finds it currently more than twice the rate, overall.)

“The virus map of the New York boroughs turns redder along precisely the same lines as it would if the relative shade of crimson counted not infection and death but income brackets and middle-school ratings. Untimely death has rarely been random in these United States. It has usually had a precise physiognomy, location and bottom line. For millions of Americans, it’s always been a war.”
‘Intimations’, Zadie Smith (2020)

In Britain, Black, Asian and Ethnic Minority (BAME) groups are twice as likely to die from the virus compared to the general population. Other people also suffer disproportionately, in terms of deaths or tissue damage: those with respiratory illnesses, from living in conditions with poor air quality, due to traffic, or industry; or those with other chronic illnesses, due to other forms of structural inequality in our systems of living. This, too, presages the patterns of the climate crisis. Amir Jina, an environmental economist at the University of Chicago and a co-author of the study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, points out that the impact of climate crisis is “eerily similar to Covid — vulnerable people are those who have pre-existing or underlying conditions.” In slum conditions the virus thrives; as Delhi-resident Anita Aggrawal puts it, interviewed by Amrit Dhillon: “You can’t protect yourself against the virus when you share the same toilet with 50 families.”

The sheer lack of care in our environment, in our politics, is made clearer than ever. This will clearly wreak far greater havoc in the battle beyond the virus, beyond flattening this initial curve, as we move into the bigger curves to come. As many said over the Northern summer, “enough is enough”.

And so to the Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of the killing of George Floyd (and then Rayshard Brooks, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and thousands more). These extraordinary events, aligning people everywhere all over the world in protests against systemic racism, played out on the same streets that COVID-19 had largely cleared a few weeks before. New forms of urbanism are far from the point of the protests, yet they arrive nonetheless, in the form of Seattle’s Chapel Hill Autonomous Zone (initially CHAZ, later known as ‘Chop’), a scrappy emergent system which nonetheless works as a sketch of a very different kind of city, or the vast BLACK LIVES MATTER street art adorning streets around the USA, making clear that streets are places of politics, for prototypes of public life.

Black Lives Matter street mural, Washington DC

That all these conditions are awfully linked is immediately obvious, their systemic connections are clearly discernible in the patterns described above. That they are environmental is equally clear, in that destruction is generated by our collective choices, conscious or otherwise, about the infrastructures and technologies of everyday life.

But it is also clear in a very simple way: they are playing out on the same places — our streets, our blocks, our neighbourhoods. The choices we make here shape our propensity to generate pandemics, or our resilience to climate and health crises, or our ability to finally and fully address social justice.

Reparations must be paid, and not only to the many millions of people to whom they are owed, but also to the environment itself.

Next: 21: Clear skies, full parks, can’t lose
Previous: 19. The waters draw back, only to return
Intro to third batch:
19. The waters draw back, only to return
Intro to Slowdown Papers: 1. Writing the coronavirus to memory
Index: All Slowdown Papers are here


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