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

27. Events are not enough

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Afternoon walk, Ljusterö 20 July 2020

Learning from the 1973 oil crisis, with its car-free streets, reduced consumption, and toilet paper hoarding; Tarpaulins on glaciers, and daylighting everyday infrastructures

“The consequences of these measures were soon felt. In certain European cities, road traffic became almost non-existent on Sundays. The roads were often deserted and rather bleak … Means of transport hitherto neglected, or which had even vanished — such as bikes and horses — suddenly reappeared. Finally, important sectors of the economy were forced to slow down. There was genuine panic in some countries, particularly since at the time nobody knew exactly how long the crisis would last.” — Daria Der Kaloustian, Canadian Centre for Architecture

Amidst an unprecedented crisis, it can revealing to look back at previous unprecedented crises, perhaps particularly those that also manifested themselves in terms of slowdowns, altered consumption, transformations in built fabric, attitude change, and different use of public space.

CCA’s 2007 exhibition ‘Sorry, Out Of Gas: Architecture’s response to the 1973 Oil Crisis’, described how that particular crisis triggered considerable invention within architecture and urbanism, as well as more high-profile mainstream interventions, exemplified by President Jimmy Carter installing solar panels on the White House roof in 1979.

President Jimmy Carter, and solar panels on the White House (1979)

People took to the streets then too, in protest, but also en masse on bikes, on foot, even on horses, as numerous radical ideas swirled in the spaces left by the oil industry temporarily shutting down.

As with today’s crisis, that unintentional transition meant privations and behaviour change too, imposed from above and below. In Japan, the oil crisis meant the government limited use of personal cars to two days per week, and their were runs on the shops, with stockpiling and shortages of ‘essentials’—including toilet paper. (Shigeru Mizuki records this in his Showa series, including the notorious story of the businessman in Osaka who filled his house with toilet paper—toilet paper clearly providing the index for anxiety at such times.)

From ‘Showa 1953–1989: A History of Japan’, by Shigeru Mizuki

In the UK, it combined with various strikes, from miners to civil servants, and led to power cuts and blackouts, late-night TV shut down (no great loss there), and an two month period of a Three Day Week, running from New Year’s Day to 7th March 1974. (This is captured well in one of St. Ettienne’s nostalgia-drenched compilations for Ace Records, Three Day Week, where it plays out rather joyfully of course—Bob Stanley even quotes Robin Carmody on “the glamour of defeat, the glory of obliteration”.)

Reducing car use, focusing on essentials, moving to different working patterns—all are in play in the early 1970s, as they are now. But again, the transition is unintentional, and does little to reframe mental models. It does not stick. Perhaps it shouldn’t of course, under those conditions, for as with the virus the impact would not have been felt equally at all. Nor could it, probably, as this event is in the midst of the Great Acceleration, rather than sliding, as we are, into the Slowdown.

So, rather than learning much from the event, if anything it leads to a period of the most environmental and social damage by far, at least outside of active war-time.

Amsterdam during the 1973 Oil Crisis

By 1986, President Ronald Reagan had those solar panels removed from the roof, backing the fossil fuel industry instead. And as events unfolded over the next few decades after the oil crisis, Danny Dorling’s data in Slowdown reveals that rather than changing course, a handful of rich economies had instead doubled down on cultures and economies built around individualisation and extraction, with almost overwhelmingly deleterious results for approximately 99% of everyone and everything.

Dorling is very clear that this last few decades of climate change, when the real damage has been done, is not ‘the world’ doing this evenly, or the general impact of rising global population, but again, only the decisions made in a very few wealthy countries.

Without changing underlying paradigms, behaviours can snap back quickly. Hence Ivan Illich, writing for Le Monde in 1973, stated that the necessary action surely had to include societal change, rather than simply technological. (Illich’s Tools for Conviviality, also 1973, has echoes in roughly contemporaneous works by Victor Papanek’s Design for the Real World and EF Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful. It’s a rich period to draw from right now.)

In a sense, 35 years later, CCA’s then-director Mirko Zardini was trying again, writing in the exhibition catalogue, “the crisis we are facing in the year 2007 has all the features that emerged in 1973. However today’s energy problem is accompanied by a heightened environmental crisis that is plain for all to see”, and therefore we must surely assess “the impossibility of unlimited growth and the necessity of debating economics’ dominance over life.”

Yet, despite the Global Financial Crisis immediately following the CCA exhibition, the reassessment called for by Zardini and many others did not happen. In fact, the 10 years following the exhibition witnessed not only those neoliberal economic dynamics being reinforced, but by 2019, three global agencies confirmed that it had been the warmest decade on record.

So events, in themselves, are not enough. 1973 and 2008 show that they do not necessarily change the underlying conditions, and thus, from a design perceptive — for what it’s worth, for we designers are not that important — they do not change the soil with which we can work. By the middle of this year, we witnessed vehicle traffic levels simply bouncing back up to where they were before the virus-induced lockdowns, and in some cases increasing in volume. No doubt aviation and tourism, given half the chance, would do likewise.

So perhaps only in the context of the Great Acceleration itself grinding to a halt can we create the space, and time, to reevaluate. We, designers and others, will need to look deeper into broader patterns and dynamics upon which these mental models are propped up. Not as analytical work, but synthetic work; through action; through experiments; through critical constructive public, political discussion and discourse; through projects that are designed to shift paradigms. Only by working with others to dig down into the soil ourselves can we construct new institutions, new models, new forms of social infrastructure.

In another of 2020’s litany of startling images, a group of well-meaning Italian climate researchers spent the early summer layering enormous tarps onto glaciers in the alps, in a fairly desperate attempt to stop snow and ice melting. Whilst the intention is laudable, and is at least a direct action that can be taken by a few, papering over the cracks in this way does nothing to prevent the fundamental problem.

Italian glacier covered in huge tarpaulins to stop melting, The Local, 21 June 2020

This is downstream thinking, literally, as the melting ice will demonstrate, with the tarps as much use as Icarus’s wings if global temperatures continue to soar. This new landscape of care must move further upstream, creating an environment centred on nurturing, restoring, and thriving, as opposed to extraction, reaction, and the smuggling of externalities out of sight, out of mind — until it is too late.

There is a markedly different approach required: not patching up, covering up, but ‘daylighting’, to borrow the urban design language of deculverting urban rivers, revealing what is hidden underneath, delving into the deeper paradigms underpinning development, looking for entirely different patterns of organisation. The tsunami of current events, drawing back the waves momentarily to reveal what’s been lying beneath all along, give us every reason to do so.

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, a scholar of social movements and racial inequality at Princeton University, said that:

“(COVID-19) has pulled what is hidden and buried on the bottom to the surface so that it can’t actually be ignored. It is a radicalizing factor because conditions that have been so dire, now combined with revolts in the street, might lead one to believe that not only is the society unraveling, but it might cause you to question what foundation it was built upon in the first place.”

In lifting up the fabric of our everyday infrastructures, ‘daylighting’ in order to reveal what’s beneath, we also have the chance—responsibility, even—to adapt the ways in which we imagine, articulate, and design them. What new patterns of activity might emerge? How might different forms and conditions be distributed over a landscape of care and repair?

Next: 28. Slowdown landscapes: Small pieces, loosely joined
Previous: 26. Defunding downstream, moving upstream, taking care, making repair
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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