Discover more from Ranganaut
The Planet as a Prefix II
Everything has a history, but there’s history and there’s History. Small h history is when I say to you: here’s how this subdivision was built between in the triangle where I-90 and I-95 (highways for those who don’t know the terms) meet: so and so intimidated or bought out all the existing property owners, bribed the city council to change the zoning and sold tracts of land to white professionals who wanted to live at a commutable distance from a city that was getting too mixed for them.
Big H History is when I say: the logic of urbanization is one of ‘spatial conflict’ between the urban center and its suburban periphery with the power relations changing with the emergence of new technologies of ordering space and time (the subdivision and the car in this case).
The first h is a recounting of the facts of this particular triangle, while the second H is what makes this triangle possible in the first place. Both accounts have value, but it’s only the second that aims a theory of human settlement and its underlying dynamics. One way history can be Big H is by positing an account of how urban space is ordered and reordered as a result of new technologies, which itself is a genre of the historicization of space, a genre that has venerable roots. In the introduction to Ibn-Khaldun’s Muqaddimah is an account of the spatial tensions of civilization as such:
The Muqaddimah exhibits both h and H history in spades. Arnold Toynbee called it “undoubtedly the greatest work of its kind that has ever yet been created by any mind in any time or place.” In its foreword, Ibn Khaldun gives an excellent argument for both kinds of history writing:
History helps us make sense of what it is to be human, and if you extend the clock to evolutionary time, it helps us make sense of life itself. Does the planet offer such depth and range? Too early to tell but like with history, there’s the small p planet and the big P Planet. Both the small p and the big P are useful prefixes with different explanatory aims. I will repurpose the same 90-95 triangular subdivision with p/P instead of h/H to show how planetary prefixes work.
Small p of the subdivision starts with the biogeography and ecology of the area - what had to be cut down to make dwellings possible and what were the challenges for construction? Where will water come from and where will it drain? There’s nothing new at all if you stick to these questions - standard urban planning so far. But let’s ask another question that goes beyond planning: what about the wood for all the construction; is it coming from elsewhere in the Northeast or from further away? If it’s from nearby, how long will those woods last if we keep constructing houses? If the wood is from far away, what does the expanding demand for wood do to deforestation at source? And what about all that carbon released by the decaying leftover wood pieces?
By expanding the circles of influence, we slowly reveal the planetary patterns of commerce and climate that make a randomly chosen triangular subdivision between 90 and 95 possible. The bottom-up small p planetary picture reveals an earthwide map of sources and sinks for even the shortest nail in the smallest house. There’s no single moment of surprise, but when you layer detail upon detail, you see a picture of tract housing that has the planet in the foreground and in the shadows.
Big P Planet will say: here are the beginnings of the planetary city, of urban settlement as the manifestation of the Anthropocene with power hierarchies between center and periphery and between humans and non-humans. It will also say that just as civilization started with cities and their citizens and the urban experience of co-existence with strangers led to a certain understanding of what it is to be human, the planetary city marks the other end of civilization and humanity, at once its full flowering and a sign of its dangerous instability.
In this big P picture, the suburb and the car are two essential features of the extended human being who straddles the earth like a giant, but a giant whose weight can’t be supported by the earth anymore. Hegel might have though the Prussian State to be the endpoint of human history; Fukuyama might have thought the liberal capitalist state as the fulfilment of all our hopes, but the planetary approach says: take a look at the city instead. The city and other infrastructural elements - highways, pipelines, telecom cables etc - are to the spatial ordering of our world that lineages are to the temporal and if we want to understand how space and the planet are as important to humans (and to life as such) as time & history, we have to pay attention to the places we make.
PS: The small/big/h/H/p/P framing is totally made up to illustrate how history and the planet manifest in small and big versions. I probably should add some caveats like ‘much work is needed’ or something, but I believe the exact opposite: this is the time to let our planetary imagination run riot and become part of our common vocabulary. At some point we should clean up our ideas and arguments and toss the faulty ones aside, but this is not the time.