I am giving a paper at the Landscapes and Critical Agency Symposium at UCL on 17th February 2012
My paper is: Landscapes, Complexity and re-imagining the Project of Planning
In this paper I will argue that the proto-ecological thinking that can be found in the work of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, when reconsidered in the light of more recent theorisations of systemic complexity, demands a critical and political re-imagining of the very possibility of the project of planning cities, landscapes and economies today.
A number of contemporary theorists – including David Harvey, Neil Smith, John Bellamy Foster and Erik Swyngedouw – have turned to consider the conceptions of ‘nature’ in the texts of Marx and Engels, with regard to pressing questions concerning our environments. Typically, their work elaborates upon the dialectical conception of metabolism that was developed by Marx out of the work of the agricultural chemist Justus von Liebig. For Marx, as for these more contemporary re-readings of his work, metabolism becomes a critical term for understanding the interaction of human and non-human labours and processes in ‘the production of nature’. Indeed it provides the basis for comprehending as a specific historical form of ‘metabolic rift,’ the ecological crisis that capitalism has instantiated.
In this paper I will develop further these insights through a reading of a fascinating passage from Engels, in which we find a rather sophisticated account of the effects of human activity upon the development of landscapes. Drawing upon a range of historical geographies from around the planet, Engels describes the necessarily unpredictable nature of complex landscapes, noting for example that:
‘The people who, in Mesopotamia, Greece, Asia Minor, and elsewhere, destroyed the forests to obtain cultivable land, never dreamed that by removing along with the forests the collecting centres and reservoirs of moisture they were laying the basis for the present forlorn state of those countries. When the Italians of the Alps used up the pine forests on the southern slopes, so carefully cherished on the northern slopes, they had no inkling that by doing so they were cutting at the roots of the dairy industry in their region; they had still less inkling that they were thereby depriving their mountain springs of water for the greater part of the year, and making it possible for them to pour still more furious torrents on the plains during the rainy seasons … ‘
For Engels the implications were clear, and using terms that anticipated the cybernetic language of systemic feedback that would be developed a century later, he suggested that we should not ‘flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature … Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel out the first.’
What are we to make of this problematisation of human intentionality by Engels? Socialist thinking has so often argued that rational planning is both a possible and necessary response to the ‘irrational’ forces of both markets and untamed environments. Equally of course, technocratic tendencies within capitalism have made similar presumptions. But we know today, whether considering our own ecological and economic plight, or indeed the insights of recent systems theories, that Engels was basically right.
Landscapes are examples of what neocybernetician Stafford Beer described as ‘exceedingly complex systems,’ and as Engels observed, understanding and managing such systems can present problems for more conventional conceptions of planning. However, I argue that this very complexity of landscapes, and the multi-scalar agencies that they contain, also means that they provide an important new model for re-imagining the project of planning in general. This involves accepting the impossibility of old conceptions of mastery and control, and instead asks how we might democratise and mediate a new and open relation to the future, valuing the work of both humans and the many other agents with whom we labour. Ultimately any such critical-complex conception of agency and planning can only be a practiced as a new political landscape.