• Erika Conchis

Presentation: People, environment and disruption: Thinking across diverse scales and contexts



Event: Semi-Plenary IV - People, environment and disruption: Thinking across diverse scales and contexts

Speaker: Vanesa Castán Broto

16/09/2020 - Online


Record transcription of the presentation:


Thank you for the invitation, I am pleased to be here.

Instead of a powerpoint, I have made a little drawing so you can follow my line of argument.

Let’s start with the first picture, a picture of a plastiglomerate rock held in Museun, in the Hague.

In his book Underland, writer Robert Macfarlane notes that plastiglomerate has been proposed as a geological marker for our current geological era, the anthropocene.

As he is walking in a glacier in Greenland he has two contradictory feelings.

He feels disgust because of the arrogance embedded in the conception of the human as a geological force.

Ha also experiences grief at the thought for the lost and the loosing Earth.

To those feelings I would add anger.

Anger at the thought that not all humans have made the Earth uninhabitable.

The Anthropocene does not quite capture the political economy dimensions of global environmental change.

Perhaps we could take a Greek word for ‘some,’ merikoi, and rename the current era as ‘merikoi-anthropocene’ in recognition that only ‘some humans’ rather than all of them are leaving a geologically-relevant imprint on the Earth.


There are clear opportunities to address the political economy challenges of the merikoi-anthropocene in the delivery of infrastructure in urban areas.

Ordering reality seems to be the chief concern of those who hold the kind of agency that enables radical changes.

Since I was in the mood of inventing words, I also use a Greek word for order, Taksi, and thought of Taksi-philia or ‘love of keeping the world in order’.

Love in general is great, but when love gives place to an obsession it becomes dangerous.

And order is an obsession in contemporary capitalism.


Anthropologist Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing explains that establishing order, what she calls ‘making inventories’, is essential for contemporary capitalism.

Order is a condition to take action at scale. However, the world does not necessarily operate at scale.


Doing things at scale requires a painstaking translation of disordered, precarious life practices into inventories that enable goods circulation and capital extraction.

Tsing describes a tapestry of disordered practices to pick mushrooms in Oregon’s degraded pine forest. Buyers work with pickers to translate their produce into inventories that enable exporting mushrooms to orderly Japan.


You will be forgiven to think that the link between mushrooms from degraded forests in Oregon and urban climate governance is tenuous at best.

But please take a moment to reflect on how important is the work of translation for urban governance.


When I first talked with urban planners about how they were developing their climate change plans, they told me that what they were doing was to integrate a mixed bag of ongoing activities into a single coherent narrative.


In a recent study of the spread of solar water heaters in Rhizao, China (with my colleagues Linda Westman and Ping Huang) we found that the local government acted as a catalyst to spread them but only after a decade or so of messy innovations within the local industry and local communities.


The search for order is perhaps inherent to the human experience.

Michael Shermer used the word patternicity to describe humans’ cognitive tendency to see regularities everywhere.


He had an evolutionary explanation for it: when you are a hunter gatherer it is a lot better to see a lion that is not there, than missing the lion looking at you as a prey.

However, ordering reality is not about survival. It is mostly about authority and power.

David Beer has written about how different forms of measuring serve to order, and hence, control, our lives.


Let’s take a step back before running into ordering the whole world around us.

I propose that we examine what is change and how change happens. Understanding change opens the door to examine the kinds of agency that can foster change.


Change was the central question of my book Urban Energy Landscapes.

I looked at the evolution of the urban energy landscape in the 20th century in four urban areas (Hong Kong, Bangalore, Maputo and Concepcion). In every case, messy everyday practices of energy governance and energy use explained how change happened.

Agency appears as relational, never held by individuals, institutions or thing but in-between them.


Over time, incremental changes in urban infrastructure provide foundations for radical transformations.

The landscape perspective opens up a multi-layered narrative of urban change in which different agencies matter at different times, through arrangements of cultures, social practices, things and technologies.


However, there are some actors that have more power than others.

That includes power to do regulations, power to mobilise capital and deliver projects, power to establish different forms of ordering.

Ordering is dangerous. The dangers embedded in ordering practices, however, may only become apparent as landscapes change.


The fourth photo shows one example of orderly danger.

In the history of housing in Hong Kong, high density and individual air conditioning systems have been a winning combination. (Although not for the poorest people)

Individual air conditioning systems have been embraced by government agencies, architects and citizens and translated into architectural templates through the city.

Over time, the energy needs of the city have changed.


However, interviews with Hong Kong’s moving and shakers suggest that moving away from individual air conditioning is unthinkable. The technology is embedded in multiple layers within the landscape that keep it in place: the choreographies of everyday life, the practices of designers and architects, the supply chain of air conditioning, the low prices of electricity.

These are too many relations to change at once: no one single actor can do that.


So in summary, no one single actor holds agency. Agency is always held in relations between actors and things.

Innovation is the process of discovering new agencies within those relationships, sometimes by establishing new relations (such as a new institution) or simply by pointing at existing relations that were previously not seen.


All people innovate in urban landscapes, but not all innovations lead to change because not all people have the same levels of agency.

Powerful actors have the power to impose order.

When powerful attempts to impose order acquire the label ‘experimental’ they become particularly monstrous.

So this is more or less the point of departure for the project Low Carbon Action in Ordinary Cities (LOACT) funded by the European Research Council


I wrote the proposal for LO-Act because in the midst of discussions about experimentation and disruption I felt the need to rethink current notions of environmental governance.

The main assumption in LO-Act is that we can learn from practical ideas emerging in the fastest growing cities in the world.


The fastest growing cities under 1 million people concentrate in areas of Africa, South Asia and South East Asia.

Following Jennifer Robinson I called these cities ‘ordinary cities’ because they rarely feature in scholarly work on climate change governance (which focuses on other, more global cities). But the word ordinary also evokes how order is constructed in everyday life. These ordinary cities have large infrastructure deficits and rising inequality rates. I believe they also have the innovation seeds for a global urban future.


I hope the empirical experiences of climate action in these cities will help me rethink ideas of order and messiness in climate change governance.

Thank you.


This project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme

Grant Agreement No 804051 — LO-ACT — ERC-2018-STG

 

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