Amazon workers at Staten Island warehouse strike in demand that the facility be shut down and cleaned after staffer tested positive for coronavirus. March 30, 2020, New York. Angela Weiss, AFP/Getty Images.
A response by Godofredo Pereira to Benjamin Bratton’s
18 Lessons from the Quarantine Urbanism on Strelka Mag.
While COVID19 has been a catalyst for several important reflections, it has also led to unfortunate propositions whose format is closer to a sales pitch than to a serious contribution. In his recent essay ‘18 Lessons of Quarantine Urbanism’, Benjamin Bratton does precisely that; asking for ‘broadly-gathered, rigorous, statistically valid models as a key medium of public governance’, suggesting these ‘should persist beyond the virus’. In highlighting the role that digital services platforms and apps have had during COVID19, Bratton, as many others have rightfully done, begins to draw-out a few principles useful in dealing with the climate breakdown. Bratton’s proposal consists of a ‘planetary green new deal’ that articulates ‘public health systems and economic and ecological viability’, and suggests the ‘geoengineering’ of ‘planetary-scale design effects’. No denying that these ambitions have their merits. But, the ways in which such a project could further reinforce colonial forms of exploitation and capitalist expansion seem neither a concern nor flickering thought in Bratton’s mind.
A first indication of what is to come lies in the construction of the essay in opposition to simplistic enemies such as the ‘romantic’, ‘technophobia’, ‘symbolic resistance’, or based on worn-out oppositions such as ‘those that ‘embrace our artificial reality’ vs those that ‘want to go back to nature’. Most contemporary climate and environmental debates, or discussions, on the energy transition and the GND [Green New Deal], reflect far more nuanced positions. In setting yourself in opposition of such easy foes, what is to be gained?
More glaring these days, is the level of importance given to monopolistic platform delivery systems. These are said to be ‘keeping the stressed social fabric intact’ and ‘keeping the world moving when the government cannot’. This, despite the stress levels of the workers exploited by those same platform delivery systems; despite the multiple strikes and protests by workers from Amazon, Uber, Instacart, Walmart, Deliveroo, Whole Foods and other platforms; despite most gig economy workers not being entitled tohealth care benefits or sick pay. In contrast, nothing is said about the nurses, doctors, care workers, cleaners and others working daily – and very physically – inside hospitals, in day-care centres, in makeshift tents, and GP practices [General practitioner] around the world fighting the COVID19 with minimal resources. Nothing is said about the solidarity networks emerging from the struggle; nothing is said about the precarious and poorly-paid, mostly migrant workers in agricultural fields putting food on tables; of the public service workers; of mail delivery workers; of lorry-drivers; of supermarket cashiers, and the many other non app-based essential work that has kept countries afloat.
It quickly becomes clear that in reflecting on the impacts of COVID19 Bratton finds nothing of care nor solidarity that’s worth mentioning; despite the amazing wealth of examples otherwise. Instead, Bratton finds only good old technocracy: ‘At this moment, dry, prepared, trustworthy, available, adaptable, responsive technocratic foresight and effectiveness seem like the most idealistic politics imaginable.’ Except, the battles being fought in hospitals across the globe are not dry and are not prepared; and to the purpose of the essay, very little is dry and prepared in the daily lives of peoples all across the world who are fighting environmental battles: these struggles are mostly messy and made out of sacrifice, not simply of the technocrat’s supposed trustworthiness. If, as Bratton suggests, the image of the pandemic does stay in peoples’ minds as statistical models of contagion, then his suggestion supposes a distance to the images of the very real pain felt by so many – either by contracting the virus, or with the death of loved ones, by losing jobs, by domestic violence, or even the images of love, care and sacrifice that will stay with people forever.
The lack of precision in Bratton’s essay is equally disappointing. What distinguishes good from poor planning? Rigorous from non-rigorous? As far as can be seen in 18 Lessons, the answer is ‘planning with better models’. And what makes better models? More testing and sensing, towards ‘a higher resolution understanding of cyclical interrelations and physical economies’! After – rightfully – criticizing the linearity of growth-degrowth discussions, Bratton falls into a similar trap. Unfortunately, however, it is simply not enough to suggest more of the same. In fact, the text could also read: ‘The composition of the needed alternatives can’t rely on turning a single master knob in the right direction, such as more vs less resolution or higher vs lower understanding’! The thing is that together with processing capacity or resolution, ‘better’ models require decisions on what to model and on what not to model. Decisions on relevance and funding priority, in other words, require politics. Meanwhile, planning – if it is to address climate in any meaningful way – requires ecological models that take into account socio-environmental entanglements, as well as decision-making processes based on justice, which means consultation and careful negotiation at multiple political scales. Negotiation, not the avoidance of consensus, is the purpose of planning.
Furthermore, despite the text’s reference to trophic cascades, Bratton seems to miss how climate change, or better, climate breakdown (climate has started to change already and won’t go back, no vaccine for climate and its impacts) is deeply entangled with a series of metabolic rifts. From species extinction to desertification, water depletion or ecosystem collapse, he seems to miss how these result from the industrial and capitalist drive for resource extraction, from plantation monocultures, from forestry and mining, from real-estate driven urbanisation, and subsequent environmental destruction; and how these are indiscernible from labour relations and modes of living across the world. Which means that the approaches required to address the types of causality, temporal scales, and kinds of temporality at stake with climate or environmental issues, make the proposition of ‘more sensing and better models’ not wrong but over-simplistic to the point of being disingenuous and dangerous. Particularly, because climate and environmental modelling must take into account the multiplicity of forms of knowledge production that exist in the world and the necessary disputes over what is to be sensed, or what is being sensed, and to what ends. Neither ‘symbolic’ nor ‘romantic’, these are the very concrete questions that arise once you move beyond the nature/culture divide (as Bratton claims to have done) and consider other arrangements of the real. The world is made of many worlds and many more knowledge practices. And it should be noted that many of these have developed in the struggle against the impositions of colonial technocrats and their dreams of ‘ecosystem administration’, or by having had to live within the environmental ruins of their mastery.
Bratton refers to a ‘we’ as if we are all in this together (the disproportionate rates of contagion and death of black populations in the US or UK is evidence ‘we’ are not). But who is the ‘we’- considering that typically there are some that don’t count in the ‘we’? And who brought such ‘we’ together? The answer would be imperialism, colonialism, capitalism; and how have the always-ready-to-help technocratic minions administered such feats? So, sensing is great – but what to sense? How? By whom? And who keeps the data?
In case someone may object to ‘geoengineering planetary-scale design effects’ – or if someone notices the risk of bad design decisions at a planetary scale– then, Bratton has a final suggestion: ‘Next fire season, will international troops be sent to protect the Amazon? If not, let’s list the reasons why not and make sure they are still good ones.’ Is this repetition of past mistakes all that Bratton can conjure? Using COVID19 and populism as an excuse for governance-by-technocracy with the support of international military? Is Bratton oblivious to the role that both colonial and nation-state military have played in the extraction of resources for over 500 years? To the genocidal and ecocidal violence exerted by military juntas throughout Latin America with the help of technocrats from the Chicago school? To how, globally, the military have been a breeding ground for patriarchy (not exactly the best for environmental care)? To the dreadful track record of ‘international community’ sponsored military interventions? Or even to the size of the Amazon rainforest…? In a disturbing way, raising the possibility of an international military as the enforcers of planetary governance is indeed revealing of ‘pre-existing conditions’ – but perhaps not the ones that should be brought forward.
A suggestion: what if, instead of sending the military to the Amazon rainforest, they are sent to the headquarters of Amazon.com in Seattle or to financial institutions across the world, to make sure the planetary commons are not being commodified? Why is it that Bratton considers protecting the world against the people that resort to logging, instead of going against those that profit from logging? Perhaps it is for the same reasons that he makes no reference to capitalism, colonialism, racism, patriarchy or extractivism… ’18 Lessons’ is a text that proposes planetary governance to tackle ‘climate change’ without mentioning that technocratic rule and the military have been enforcing planetary ecosystem governance in the name of colonialism and capitalism for quite a long time.
It is not that some aspects of ’18 Lessons’ are not relevant if added a few adjustments: such as the role that can be played by digital platforms in the support of intersectional forms of solidarity; forms of climate modelling that take into account socio-environmental impacts; to the necessary development of green new deals from the south, and even planetary coordination towards counter-hegemonic forms of globalization based on social justice and good living. But if a repeat of the same old forms of exploitation and socio-environmental destruction are to be avoided, even such adjusted proposals would require precisely those things lacking from Bratton’s text: care for the many worlds that make up our world, care for politics, and a critique of capitalism – which is what put the world in this mess in the first place.
Godofredo Enes Pereira is the Head of Programme for the MA Environmental Architecture at the Royal College of Art, London. Godofredo spent the past ten years working on the politics of exhumation in areas of post-genocide and resource extraction, and their instrumentality towards collective politics through teaching, writing and exhibiting. Godofredo was a member of Forensic Architecture where he led the Atacama Desert Project, an investigation of environmental and human rights violations in the Atacama Desert. He is currently developing research on The Lithium Triangle, across Chile, Bolivia and Argentina.