How informal urbanism affects the way we think about formal urbanism is one of the crucial questions we ask here at Favelissues. And, since I began studying favelas and urbanism, I have noticed an increase in interest among designers, planners, and thinkers in actually reshaping our engagement with urbanism. But it has been a modest increase. Much too modest.
And certainly such reformulation of our approach has not reached the practice of planning in any significant way.
To understand why, we need to zoom out beyond the relatively narrow scope of urbanism.
John Lienhard, the influential chronicler of engineering and technology once said, “The day we quit pioneering, we quit being human.” This quote was the punchline of a discussion of the Edward Tenner book, “Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences.” In this book, Tenner catalogs many and varied instances wherein a new technology provokes consequences unforeseen by the innovators of the technology. Tenner does not meaningfully explore anything but the phenomenon of unintended consequences itself. However even indicating that unintended consequences exist will inevitably raises many questions: what risks can be foreseen? Is it the responsibility of innovators to anticipate any subsequent unintended consequences at all? And, the question Leinhard was addressing with the quote above, When has technological innovation gone too far? Leinhard answers that question: our relationship with technology can never go too far. Innovation is who we are, without it we lose what defines as human.
That may be true. It may be that, as he elsewhere asserts, “Technology is what we are. We are the only species that cannot live without the fruits of our invention.” Think about that for minute. What technology do we need to survive? Given our current technological world and the way technology trains our behavior, personally and culturally, I am certain that, for most of us it is much more than a sharpened stone.
But this is an unintended consequence that Edward Tenner has, to my knowledge not addressed yet, the most fundamental unintended consequence of all: human adaptation to accommodate new technology and new innovation.
As soon as a technology takes hold in our life it begins to define the way we behave, the way we live, even.
In our lifetime, technology has been biting back more and harder than ever, and in compounding ways.
In fact, there isn’t a single place on the planet we could go to avoid the couplet of technology and unintended consequences. The deepest part of the ocean? The world’s oceans contain enough plastic debris that if it were bagged like groceries, it would line every inch of coast on the planet five bags deep. The top of Kilimanjaro? Its glaciers are receding irreversibly, and even if that weren’t enough, where could we go to avoid the atmospheric carbon that’s causing the melting?
The peek into unintended consequences of innovation is fascinating and bleak. How can we help but ask ourselves, when enough will be enough? And the question may not even be, as Leinhard put it, “So does this mean we should reject new medicine and turn away from computers?” (His answer, of course, was “Hardly!”). The more useful question would be, do we even have it in us to moderate our engagement with technology? Are we even capable of “turning away” from new advancements. Even the way I just said that answers the question. I said “advancement.”
That term goes to the heart of the need we have as humans to push limits, to never stop struggling with hard questions, to never stop improving. We inevitably engage our endeavors as attempts to advance and progress. Running faster. Earning more. Defeating odds. Etc. All economies from micro-scale to global, must be growing to be considered successful. Each generation must be living longer, must have better stuff.
And the largest unintended consequence of all, global climate change, neatly (and bitterly) ties these phenomena together. There is direct correlation between personal wealth and personal carbon emissions. Of course, that translates to neighborhoods and nations as well. Our thinking goes that wealth is an advancement. And the wealthiest among us are entitled to the most advanced technologies. From smart phones to helicopters, to trips into space, our ability to engage technology increases with wealth and our unintended consequences increase as well.
Recently, at Dublin City University, Kevin Anderson made this powerful statement:
“It’s worth bearing in mind that if you took the top ten percent of emitters at the global level (their tonnage is about 25-30 tons of carbon per person); If you just said to that person, ‘we want you to reduce your emissions to the average of Europe, not to a poor level, but to the average of Europe.’ That’s all you asked them to do. That would be a 30% reduction in global C02 emissions. Just asking the wealthy 10% to have an emissions the same as the average of Europe.”
I have written elsewhere about how important it is that we not only bring favelas into our repertoire in terms of planning, but that we bring their aesthetics to the fore of our daily lives. In his DCU workshop, Anderson repeatedly refers to a study by Thomas Picketty and Lucas Chancell of the Paris School of Economics. In it they find, that the top 10% emitters of greenhouse gasses are responsible, globally for 45% of emissions. Conversely, the Bottom 50% of greenhouse gas emitters are responsible for a mere 13% of world emissions. The lesson there is clear: in terms of planetary ecological havoc, I would choose to be in that bottom 50%.
Does that affirm Leihard’s rejected question: that we, in fact, should be “reject[ing] new medicine and turn[ing] away from computers?” Can we reasonably expect people to accept less? So spend less? To consume less? I could easily get out of my depth and make a hypocrite of myself going any further into a response.
With confidence I can say this, however: There is an aesthetic, a general mode of material engagement that comes with what we know as poverty that is useful and beneficial. On the one hand, when we perceive ourselves as existing in midst of those who deserve technological advancements by merit of intellect, opportunity, capital or other circumstances we will ever be in the spiral of advancement and endangerment to unintended consequences. The materials in personal electronics and packaged meals come from somewhere and must end up somewhere else.
And on the other hand, not that the poor are perhaps immune to their own risks of technological engagements, they are still human, but there exists in poverty a sense that survival is most necessary. The accouterments of economic participation are certainly there to some degree or another, but there is a simplicity, an aloofness to materialist tendencies that is valuable, essential.
I am thoroughly convinced that one does not have to be in poverty to feel a detachment to the rat race of technology and modern economic markets. And, I’m certain that there are some seriously negative consequences that come as a result of pathologies involving the material pursuits of some who experience poverty. However, in general that aesthetic of survival and simplicity is an aesthetic we could learn. It is an aesthetic we could adopt and become accustomed to, to develop as part of our life and then to experience the changes it could make. (I have labelled this aesthetic as “Sambinha” elsewhere).
Toward the end of his life, the pioneering phenomenologist, Martin Heidegger was asked in an interview with Der Spiegel magazine, “Now the question naturally arises: Can the individual man in any way still influence this web of fateful circumstance? Or, indeed, can philosophy influence it? Or can both together influence it, insofar as philosophy guides the individual, or several individuals, to a determined action?”
Heidegger had spent his life exploring in staggering depth the relationship of humanity to technology. Some have criticized him and his predecessors of Luddism, because of his views that humanity (or at the very least Western culture) innately abides cycle of technological entrapment becoming ever more enmeshed in technological mindset, and evermore disconnected from the world outside the technological scope until we create intractable problems and dehumanize ourselves by commodifying everything, even ourselves. That is a massive oversimplification, but it serves as some background for the question as it was posed to Heidegger and his subsequent answer.
He said, “philosophy will be unable to effect any immediate change in the current state of the world. This is true not only of philosophy but of all purely human reflection and endeavor. Only a god can save us. The only possibility available to us is that by thinking and poetizing we prepare a readiness for the appearance of a god, or for the absence of a god in [our] decline, insofar as in view of the absent god we are in a state of decline.”
It’s esoteric language to be sure, but I included it intentionally, so we can demystify it.
We have the intractable and destructive problems Heidegger imagined. We are living them. The interviewer was asking basically, “So, is there a way out?” We always want to know that when we fell trapped.
Heidegger’s response is generally accepted as meaning that only an overarching ethos (“god”) could save us. Individually there is nothing we could do to escape the technological entrapments—the infinitely complex bundle of technologies and unintended consequences. However, in “Poeticizing” and “Thinking”—participating in the world of collective imagination and creativity—we can prepare a way for that overarching ethos to appear, to allow us all to engage the world in new and different ways, ways we individually could not have imagined before.
In order to participate in the onset of this overarching ethos, we must think outside the current one—that is Heidegger’s “Thinking” and “Poeticizing.”
The reason we can only prepare for the onset of the new overarching ethos, is that the current ethos defines our way of engaging the world; because we are part of the current technological ethos, we only perceive the world within the parameters it permits. Hence, we cannot clearly see a way out of it. Toward the end of his Dublin City University presentation, Kevin Anderson quotes Robert Unger, who said, “At every level the greatest obstacle to transforming the world is that we lack the clarity and imagination to conceive that it could be different.”
This is fundamentally why urbanists are loathe to seriously including the world of informal development in the profession of urbanism. Not because of some conscious set of prejudices, but the unconscious parameters set by the current mindset. We are all in the mindset that poverty is bad and therefore it’s opposite, wealth, is good. Kevin Anderson mentions that he wished Leonardo DiCaprio had not spoken up about climate change in his Oscar acceptance speech. Lest we wonder why that could be objectionable, consider how solidly into the 10% of emitters DiCaprio must be. And then imagine a world wherein those who lived as extravagantly as he does were to dial it back, walk the walk rather than feign concern from the Academy Award stage.
Perhaps I should not have said “feign.” I am certain that DiCaprio is genuinely concerned at the level of cognition or even ethics. But whether or not he is genuinely concerned, he is still driving the trend that wealth is good, extravagant living is desirable. Real Heideggarian Thinking and Poeticizing would require creative action to bring about the appearance of the savior-god ethos. That is what we need. Not from the DiCapprios, but from each of us.
Derrek Jensen, the noted ecological thinker (also often criticized as a Luddite) said of our multiplicity of ecological crises: “When we stop hoping for external assistance, when we stop hoping that the awful situation we’re in will somehow resolve itself, when we stop hoping the situation will somehow not get worse, then we are finally free — truly free — to honestly start working to resolve it. I would say that when hope dies, action begins.” (Also quoted in this extensive piece on climate change).
It’s a compelling (and quite Nietzschean, also) way of looking at hope, as the impediment of action. He says, “I’m not, for example, going to say I hope I eat something tomorrow. I just will. I don’t hope I take another breath right now, nor that I finish writing this sentence. I just do them. On the other hand, I do hope that the next time I get on a plane, it doesn’t crash. To hope for some result means you have given up any agency concerning it.”
I believe Jensen’s version of hope would fit nicely into the package of creative world-engagements that comprises Martin Heidegger’s Thinking and Poeticizing. It is the kind of action that is willing to seek answers from wherever unlikely places they might be found, and then to act upon those answers in ways that when compounded by the synergistic totality of human endeavors, could usher in the ethos-god capable of resolving even the most intractable crisis.
I was directed to Anderson’s Dublin City University address by a climate adaptation specialist who believes wholeheartedly (and frankly the numbers are on his side) that climate change on the catastrophic global scale is inevitable. He believes that all we are allowed, all we are entitled to at this point are adaptation and mitigation to the perhaps paltry degree that those are even possible. Kevin Anderson, who is one of the foremost students of climate change on the planet, sees very dim prospects of technology providing solutions (from carbon trading to geoengineering). This is a case where the scientist and the philosopher agree: Crucial to Heidegger’s philosophy is the notion that our current engagement with technology cannot solve its own problems. To distill it to an axiom, such would amount to fighting fire with fire.
As I said, the numbers are the side of this pessimism, to the extent that it ceases to be pessimistic, but simple reportage, factual presentation. The arithmetic of atmospheric carbon is grim and becoming more so with each crunch of the numbers.
But, to re-appropriate John Leinhard. We are pioneers by nature. Just as we can push the envelope of technological innovations and create global networks of goods and services, we are capable of Thinking and Poeticizing solutions to the unintended consequences inherent to those networks.
I have defined Sambinha Architecture, the mode of engagement that gives form to favelas, as that which makes beauty from ugliness. I have talked about it being the primary lesson that planners must glean from favela life and transpose onto the design professions. Arquitectura do Sambinha is taking the components of despair and reformulating them until they constitute joy. Now, I’ll take it one step further, Arquitectura do Sambinha is taking the pioneering spirit whose urge is for the next most impressive gadget and reshaping that urge to focus on life, on community, on simplicity, on survival. That is the hope that has released itself to action. That is all we have. And, ultimately, I must believe it will be enough.