Towards collective vows of luxurious poverty
Open city. The challenges of the future
- Oct 20
- 14 mins
Rather than thinking of the city as a doomed reality, as a certain catastrophic environmentalism does, we can see it as a yet-to-be fulfilled promise that the ecological transition can help us to bring to fruition. This will depend on our being able to express a new way of wanting, a new pleasure of living that is ecologically frugal.
The ecological economy has noted that cities today are authentic metabolic black holes, giant drains of energy and materials. Eighty per cent of the world’s energy and 75% of its resources are consumed by cities. Cities are also accountable for 75% of emissions. To put it in the form of a headline, the urban phenomenon is the primary catalyst behind the socio-ecological crisis.
As a premise, before undertaking any serious reflection on eco-social issues, Jorge Riechmann typically makes a baseline methodological recommendation: abandon the “within the city limits” view and adopt a “beyond the city limits” approach. That is, break with the theoretical, ideological and cognitive discordances that tend to confuse the space in which major political and moral issues are at stake with the limits of the usual community (be it the municipality, the region, the nation or even humanity as a whole, in the case of the most internationalist thinking). Forcing the introduction into the analysis of what is spontaneously left out; obviously in the social outskirts, but especially in the natural outskirts (biogeochemical cycles, the network of ecosystems, eco-dependence relations).
This piece of advice can be fully applied to the dilemma of the city and its future in times of eco-social crisis. Because the urban phenomenon’s connection with the climate emergency or the depletion of basic resources for industrial metabolisms extends far beyond the city understood on the basis of the immediate experience that we have of it. Undoubtedly, the industrial food model – which has replaced farmers with machines powered by fossil fuels, demographically emptying the fields – is an outcome of our urban model without which it cannot be explained. And so far, the finest accomplishments in urban sustainability often engage in an old colonial trick: outsourcing ecological debt. On the other side of the fence of European Green Capitals is China, turned into a Dickensian hell, where the light deficit owing to air pollution has already reached the point of altering the photosynthesis process.
This broadening of the vision that is inherent to political ecology and its materialism seems to go hand in hand with a certain urban pessimism. If we don’t cheat ourselves by playing solitaire with ecological accounts, it’s tempting to think that the modern city is a doomed, metabolically unfeasible reality. Or, at least, intrinsically exclusive. After all, like our entire world, modern cities are children of the energy lottery prize that are fossil fuels, which allowed the existence of combustion engines and synthetic fertilisers and, in turn, did not only give way to the demographic and spatial gigantism of our cities, but also to their independence from their surrounding agrosystems.
 Gary Gardner, “La ciudad, un sistema de sistemas”, in La situación del mundo 2016. Ciudades sostenibles. Del sueño a la acción. FUHEM Icaria, Madrid, 2016.
 Jorge Riechmann, Ética extramuros. Ediciones UAM, Madrid, 2016.
 There are numerous authors of political environmentalism who uphold this thesis of the infeasibility of the urban civilisation in a post-fossil fuel world. This is the fundamental prospective thesis of a book like En la espiral de la energía, by the late activist Ramón Fernández Durán and Luis González Reyes (Libros en Acción, 2014).
The world must be profoundly transformed, not by replacing technologies, but by replacing social relations. Production relocation and reorganisation of the territory will be the cornerstones of this other major transformation.
Blindness in the blink of an eye
But today we know that this ecosystem secession was illusory. Like many contemporary anthropological features, it was a mirage. Something that we could call, in historical terms, blindness in the blink of an eye. As if we had considered the momentary darkness that suspends our vision for the blink of an eye as permanent. But the end of the industrial fossil matrix, which will happen due to a geological imperative throughout the first half of this century, and which we must politically speed up in the next decade to avoid a climatically uninhabitable world, once again confronts the modern city with what Mumford called “the problem of quantity”: how to transmute “physical mass into psychic energy” so as not to give into gigantism.
At this point a technical note must be made regarding one of the Gordian knots of the eco-social transition that is still under scientific discussion, but from which reasonable conclusions may already be drawn: it is almost impossible for a 100% renewable energy matrix to take on the world as we know it. The world must be profoundly transformed, not by replacing technologies, but by replacing social relations. Production relocation and reorganisation of the territory will be the cornerstones of this other major transformation in the Polanyian sense. Fundamentally because the total electrification of current transport, which is 95% dependent today on petroleum derivatives, in addition to being almost unsolvable in some formats (aviation, heavy machinery), is materially impossible, as it would clash with the limits of the mineral capital of the Earth. Again, here the eco-social issue resonates, loaded with reverberations of the former social question; to put it in a tweet, the dilemma of the 21st century is: either electric cars for a few or bicycles for all. What in a crowded, over-limited world, where Hitler’s ideological principle (the fight for Lebensraum, “living space”) enjoys much more favourable conditions for its emergence than in the 20th century, could translate into a much harsher dilemma: either learn to kill on an unprecedented scale, or learn to share on an unprecedented scale.
But even accepting the mineral and other limitations that the deployment of renewable energies entails, we must approach the urban phenomenon in the era of the less grim eco-social crisis. Firstly, calling the urban networks in which we reside today cities is an imprecise linguistic inertia. It would be better to call them megalopolises: authentic “urban melanomas” – according to José Manuel Naredo’s apt expression – that simultaneously ruin the countryside and the city in their classic senses, as Guy Debord was able to acknowledge. The urban-rural dichotomy, although fundamental in terms of cultural alterity, has metabolically been a fiction until the beginning of that major material hiatus in the history of the species that Will Steffen calls “The Great Acceleration”, Eric Hobsbawm “The End of the Neolithic Era”, and Pier Paolo Pasolini “The Disappearance of the Fireflies”, which begins after the Second World War. Broadly speaking, the historic city has been part of the countryside: an ecological unit, or at least in deep symbiosis, marked the relationship of the city with its hinterland, with its nearby surroundings. Urban agriculture, whose flag is flown by environmental activism today, has been more the rule than the exception. The same could be said of a whole set of activities and land uses that today we would place within the primary sector. Borges said in Fervor de Buenos Aires that, at the Bonfires of Saint John, “the city remembers that it was once countryside”. Don’t the street, road and place names of our cities also remember this, with names of streets and districts like Huertas [“market gardens”] or Matadero [“slaughterhouse”], in the case of Madrid?
 Lewis Mumford, The City in History. Harcourt, Brace & World, New York, 1961.
 For an introduction into this topic, as obscure as it is essential, the work of Antonio and Alicia Valero, scientists from the University of Zaragoza, is recommended. “Los límites minerales”, an informative article by Alicia Valero, was featured in number 36 of La Maleta de Portbou, in the dossier “Ecologismo o barbarie”.
 José Manuel Naredo and Antonio Montiel Márquez, El modelo inmobiliario español y su culminación en el caso valenciano. Icaria, Barcelona, 2011.
 Guy Debord, La sociedad del espectáculo. Archivo Situacionista Hispano. Available at: https://sindominio.net/ash/espect.htm.
Given the demographic and political importance of the city in the world as a whole, it is unfathomable that the ecological transition will be able to execute the kind of landmark task required of it without turning cities into agents of change.
A good promise unkept
The fact that the city, as Lewis Mumford saw it, was contained within human limits, was always a precondition for its basic function: to be a place of communion, a nucleus of social intensity that unleashed, better than any other human institution, the capacity for coordination and cooperation that is inherent to culture in its anthropological sense, in turn fostering phenomena of great political interest such as ethical cosmopolitanism and scientific, discursive, ideological and artistic innovation. Faced with the challenging conceptions regarding the urban phenomenon that wields a certain catastrophic environmentalism, it is more interesting to think of the city, as Mumford did, as “a good promise not yet kept” that the ecological transition can help us to bring to fruition. And vice versa: given the demographic and political importance of the city in the world as a whole, it is unfathomable that the ecological transition will be able to execute the kind of landmark task required of it without turning cities into agents of change. Henri Lefebvre’s plea for the revolution to be urban or not has gained importance in the era of the socio-ecological crisis.
In fact, cities are the ones that are already leading the civilising initiative in terms of ecological transition, both in the field of municipal public policies and alternative practices by organised civil society. Inspiring experiences are proliferating in areas such as the distributed production of renewable energy, the composting of organic matter and cycling mobility. But fulfilling the city’s lost promise while the city helps us make an emergency landing within planetary boundaries calls for far-reaching transformations in morphology and urban dynamics that have hardly been explored today. Halting the tumour growth of the megalopolis – that will generally have to be adjusted in each specific case – involves putting limits on the sweeping historic growth of the urban space. Reforming and redistributing before constructing. Building, when necessary, under tight guidelines, reversing the suburbia model, voracious in ecological and spatial terms. Much more decentralising of resources and services to ensure living locally. And, of course, agrarianising the city, with a major peri-urban primary sector that covers a reasonable amount of its diet with local foods. Metropolitan agrarian parks are, in this regard, an essential tool to make the urban-rural relationship “a stable marriage, not a weekend liaison”, as Mumford wanted. And they must acquire, both in spatial planning and in economic policy (vocational training, active employment policies, public food purchase), a much greater significance than they currently hold.
 A good inventory of sustainable urban experiences in Spain was included by Fernando Prats, Nerea Morán and Kois Casadevante in the book Ciudades en movimiento. Avances y contradicciones de las políticas municipalistas ante las transiciones ecosociales. Foro de Transiciones, Madrid, 2018.
However, this eco-social transformation agenda will depend on progress in two areas: on the one hand, the progressive transformation of our economic system towards a post-growth, and therefore somewhat post-capitalist, reality. This is a task in which cities have a primordial role to play, but which extends far beyond the framework of municipalism. On the other hand, a cultural revolution that facilitates the decoupling of happiness and consumer society is imperative. Without it, our cities’ gains in eco-efficiency will be weakened in a rebound effect, the decline of the material domain of the economy will be an impossible goal in the pluralist democratic game and any form of Green New Deal will end up becoming a turn of the screw that will reinforce the colonial and extractive architecture of international trade.
In an energy and material impoverishment, which is relative but considerable, we have to find an opportunity to enjoy other forms of collective wealth: wealth of free time, of personal affective and sexual relationships.
Cities, their citizens and their governments can indeed and must make an essential contribution here. The solutions to the ecological crisis in democratic and egalitarian terms as opposed to exterminist solutions depend on our being able to express another way of wanting. In an energy and material impoverishment, which is relative but considerable, we have to find an opportunity to enjoy other forms of collective wealth, today sunken by the compulsive frenzy imposed by the structurally prevailing economic totalitarianism: wealth of free time, of personal affective and sexual relationships; wealth of creativity and artistic empowerment, of community associations; recreational wealth and sporting wealth. I have called this proposal, using a poetic oxymoron, “luxurious poverty”. Basically, it concerns an aspirational outlook and a new libidinal economy in which the self-containment of consumption, ecologically essential, can be reconciled with an expansion of its enjoyment of what Georgescu-Roegen retained, insisting on something obvious but always forgotten, which is the ultimate reason for the economic process: “the pleasure of living”. That transmutation of physical mass into psychic energy that Mumford claimed has its alchemical secret in the collective construction of a new pleasure of living that is ecologically frugal.
And the thing is that the gap between “how we live and how we might live”, as William Morris called it, can continue to drive the work of the old mole. Also in a century of material impoverishment, energy decline and adaptation to a warmer and more hostile world climate-wise. To this end we have to drain the clots of our utopian imagination. It is not difficult to speculate on the prospect of urban transformation that, in addition to being ecologically viable and socially just, is more desirable than the current one. Healthy urban environments that turn the numbers of pollution victims into exhibits in a museum of horrors. Dug up rivers, waterway naturalisation and large interurban ecological corridors for the enjoyment of nature and the practice of outdoor sports. Very dense networks of associations organised around the community’s self-management of common pursuits: political, gastronomic, recreational, scientific, and erotic-festive passions. Robust local music and art scenes, integrated in a decentralised circuit of cheerful, generous and abundant neighbourhood celebrations. Public hammock areas in parks to take advantage of laziness as a right, as advocated by Paul Lafargue. None of these collective practices calls for a huge energy investment or major technical equipment to be able to unleash its full potential when shaping new standards of good living.
 To become acquainted with the exterminist prospect before the eco-social crossroads of the 21st century, please see Peter Frase, Cuatro futuros. Ecología, robótica, trabajo y lucha de clases para después del capitalismo. Blackie Books, Barcelona, 2020. As well as Carl Amery, Auschwitz, ¿comienza el siglo xxi?: Hitler como precursor. Turner, Madrid, 2002.
 As Mumford noted, during the Middle Ages the number of holidays on the yearly calendar came to 180, which contrasts with the 144 days with no work obligations for a current job with good conditions.
The eco-social pact must relinquish energy and material prosperity in exchange for economic security.
A materialistic explanation
Lastly, a materialistic explanation: the “cultural revolutions” and the “moral reforms”, and without a doubt the plan for luxurious poverty outlined here, cannot be understood as the result of the wilful intentions of political subjects. Ways of life are structurally constituted phenomena. And it will be the modification of social structures that may have verifiable effects in terms of shaping most of the population’s standards of subjectivity.
For luxurious poverty, it will equally important to spin a new ecological utopian narrative that builds new imaginaries of wanting and good living and to frame all these resignifications in some popular conquests that will mark new prospects for rights. And the latter will bring with them new enabling conditions for social life. Equally distribute production and reproduction time to gain personal freedom, distribute wealth to broaden collective security and consolidate the common as a guiding principle to ecologically optimise the existing wealth: this could be the basic triad of goals advocated by revolutionary reformism, as André Gorz called it. The universal basic income, the 30-hour working week, the compulsory free license in any research/development with the participation of public funds and the network of municipal banks of things (libraries for citizen lending of objects) could be the flagships of a programme that strives to achieve those goals.
Many of the individualised forms of consumer freedom that flourished during neoliberalism, and that served as a compensatory effect in the face of the precariousness of everyday life, have become ecological privileges that violate the most basic principle of democracy: universality. An initiative for a socially just ecological transition must arrange for these privileges to be abolished. But this will only be politically viable if, in return, we ensure a huge leap in material security combined with a prospect of a more appealing meaning of life. In short, the sustainable cities of the 21st century must do their bit when it comes to investing in the neoliberal social pact: if it swapped economic precariousness for conspicuous mass consumption, the eco-social pact must relinquish energy and material prosperity in exchange for economic security and a new and more gratifying idea of happiness, inspired by something like collective vows of luxurious poverty.
- Opción cero: el reverdecimiento forzoso de la Revolución cubanaEmilio Santiago Muíño. Catarata, 2017
- Rutas sin mapa: horizontes de transición ecosocialEmilio Santiago Muíño. Catarata, 2016
- No es una estafa, es una crisis (de civilización)Emilio Santiago Muíño. Enclave de Libros, 2015
PhD in Social Anthropology from the Autonomous University of Madrid and Master’s Degree in Public-Oriented Anthropology. Member of the Cross-disciplinary Research Group for Socio-Environmental Transitions and the group driving the manifesto Última Llamada [Last Call].
From the issue
N116 - Oct 20 Index
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