The Urban Jungle Revisited: Newsletter #32

Street Metaphysics

I like philosophical problems. I mostly don't like contemporary academic philosophers' answers to those problems, but I like the problems themselves. The basic questions of philosophy are universal; every human being asks them in their own way and answer them in as many different ways. "Where do we come from? Who are we? Where are we going?" All philosophical questions, but answered by a painter, not a philosopher.


The approach I prefer is what I call street metaphysics: introduce a philosophical question or puzzle and address it in the language of the street, using images and metaphors that are familiar to everyone. It's surprising how far we can go without introducing technical language or logical and mathematical symbolism. Our goal should be to make concepts transparent enough that even when we have to introduce math, it's clear how one does it and what we might expect as an answer.

A good novel immerses you in its world. The artistry of the writer lies in hiding itself so that you inhabit the novelist's world rather than being impressed by her smarts. I think of street metaphysics in a similar fashion, of philosophy as literature. In this view, the thinker's artistry is in immersing the audience in a conceptual world of her making and to let philosophical answers arise naturally through the act of immersion. The proof of the pudding, as always, lies in the eating. One of my favorite street metaphysicians, Roberto Calasso, bakes a mean cake.

I am Food

At the very beginning of Camus' "Myth of Sisyphus" he makes the following statement:

There is only one really serious philosophical question, and that is suicide

It's a strange conundrum, if one at the heart of existentialism. The lonely man, the Stranger, separates himself from the world. He - and it's a he - is so aloof to its charms and dangers that suicide is the only authentic act imaginable. Camus captures the logical conclusion of human domination over nature; a life so secure and untroubled by external dangers that the only person who can kill me is myself.

At the other end of that spectrum is the existential threat faced by most animal species and human beings for most of our history: the fear of being eaten. I can't even imagine that worry which must be so familiar to the deer in the savannah and the snake in the grass. Over the millennia we have come to control our circumstances to such an extent that we have entirely lost that fear except in alien movies and children's nightmares.

That liberation from being food is coming back to haunt us, as impending ecosystem collapse shows the problems of being stuck in a human bubble. The long journey from the forest to the farm to the factory and most recently, to the office, has taken us far from the existential concerns of life on earth. We have no idea what it's like for them to be alive.

In this newsletter, I want to begin a longish exploration of the human bubble and what we can do to transcend that bubble. I want to start that exploration with that most human of constructions: the city. If there's hope for the human contract with nature, it's got to start with the paved world.

Urban and Urbane

I am an urban animal. I find cities with fewer than a million people desolate. I like the cosmopolitan virtues of anonymity and diversity, the respect for privacy and the tolerance of strangers. It's clear that these virtues are far from universally held; there are plenty of people who yearn for closer community, where everyone knows everyone else and outsiders are few and far between.

The closest I ever came to village living was in my undergraduate years, when I was living in a relatively small community of about a thousand students and a few hundred faculty and staff. Our lives were filled with rumors and gossip. At least the student body turned over by 25% every year; from what I have learned since then, the adults - i.e., faculty, their spouses and staff - lived an even smaller life since their community was permanent.

At the same time, I am aware of the bad rap cities have received over the centuries. If the critics are to be believed, cities are parasites, living off the toil of farmers and other food producers while condemning them as unsophisticated peasants. To them, cities are hellholes both within and without. Their interface to the outside world is fundamentally extractive, sucking in food, fuel and intelligence from the countryside (and increasingly, from the rest of the world) and spewing out software and financial capital. Their internal affairs are hardly better; teeming with intrigue and hustle without concern for the life or wellbeing of its inhabitants.

Information is the main product of the city: data, spreadsheets, business plans, books, movies . You can almost say that the modern city is an infodynamic engine:

Energy in, information out

Depending on your view of information, there's the city of arts, commerce and intellectual life, human imagination and cleverness concentrated in a few square miles. Then there's the "Bombay meri jaan" city of exploitation and extraction, a black hole into which the human race has fallen without hope of redemption.

Are these the only alternatives? Can we reimagine the city in another fashion?

Jevons Paradox

Cities are metabolically more efficient than the countryside. You can feed and clothe far more people per caloric capita if you stack them on top of each other. At the same time, our fossil fuel civilization is fundamentally urban. That civilization has no limits to its needs. When we talk about the rapid pace of technology, what we are really talking about is the proliferation of human needs abetted by advertising, and the expansion of productive facilities to meet those needs. We are all familiar with the fundamental loop of the modern economy:

Search. Click. Buy. Ship. Use. Throw. Search again.

The most dynamic sectors of our economy are at the heart of the fossil fuel boom. The empire of bits is fed by an ocean of oil.

Where does that leave us with cities? As an urban connoisseur, I am greatly charmed by the diversity and range of urban production, but at the same time, I realize that this model is unsustainable. That's the fundamental paradox, a version of Jevons paradox. Jevons noticed about a hundred and fifty years ago that as England's ability to extract coal became more efficient, coal consumption per capita increased rather than decreased. Why? Wouldn't you expect people to consume less coal as their energy needs are met with less burning? Unfortunately, not. As coal became easier to extract and cheaper, demand increased even faster than efficiency gains. While per capita consumption per item decreased, the number of desirable items increased.

We continue to find more and more uses for fossil fuel. From the New Zealand apple bought in the middle of the Boston winter to cheap trinkets made in China, the easy availability of fossil fuels has only increased our appetite. It's like broadening roads. You might think it reduces traffic congestion. Instead, more people buy cars and the traffic expands to fill up the space available. End result: fewer trees and sidewalks, more cars.

This vision of the maximally extractive city continues to be extolled. Richard Florida calls it the creative class. The term "creative class" is a misnomer: creatives such as artists and academics are really courtiers to the kings of capital. They congregate in mega-cities connected to other mega-cities via airports. These elites are much more likely to connect with each other across national boundaries than their own compatriots. It's the most dis-embedded existence possible. Unfortunately, that dis-embedded existence comes at a great cost - vanishing forests and animals, global warming and any number of other ills. I use the word "ill" deliberately. The extractive city is a disease and should be treated as such, i.e., something to be addressed urgently, but with all the kindness and wisdom that we can muster.

I don't think there's anything inevitable at all about the extractive city. We are stuck in the belief that the forest --> village --> city arrow is a fact of nature, that there's no other way to make cities happen. I think that in many ways the city is closer to the forest than villages can ever be; the urban jungle need not be the dismal reality it currently describes. It can be a way in which cities can integrate into nature. I will talk more about the urban jungle in future newsletters.