Illustration by CO+LOR Constantin Cojocaru și Loreta Isac
The Political Ecology of Locked-Down Cities
This text inventories some of the ecological consequences of city lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic and discusses critically their uneven distribution and ways in which social groups experienced them. The discussion includes a critical approach to extractive capitalism, which relies on continuous exploitation of natural resources and reproduction of social inequalities.
Lucian Vesalon is a lecturer in the Department of Political Sciences of the West University in Timișoara, where he teaches subjects such as Theories of International Development or Political Ideologies. Areas of academic interest are political ecology, development studies and discourse analysis. He has published studies in journals such as Environmental politics, International Journal for Urban and Regional Research or Area.
CO+LOR Constantin Cojocaru și Loreta Isac
Constantin Cojocaru is a 3D generalist, and Loreta Isac is an artist and illustrator, and together they are CO+LOR. They work together in motion design, do experimental animation and object design. Their method relies on research to reveal certain narratives and experiments that are later translated into movement or can take the form of static objects. Their portfolio can be found here. You can also follow them on Instagram and Facebook.
Daniel decided to become an actor so that he could experience feelings and events that otherwise won’t fit in one’s lifetime. He collaborated with Bulandra Theatre and the Monday Theatre @ Green Hours and attended many national and international festivals. Since 2013 he plays in projects written, translated, or directed by himself and produced by his Doctor’s Studio Cultural Association which he also founded. Daniel doesn’t know if this is the way to approach new forms of artistic expression, what’s certain is that he distances himself from the old ones.
Ioana Miruna Voiculescu
Ioana Miruna Voiculescu is a Romanian freelance translator working with English and French. In almost seventeen years of experience as a freelancer, she has ventured into quite a few domains—from legal, financial, or medical to literary and academic translation, editing, and some interpreting. She holds a master’s degree in Sociology and Social Anthropology from Central European University, so she feels at home working on anthropology texts as she gets to use her linguistic skills and feed her interest. She is also responsible for the Romanian translation of Lucia Berlin’s short stories (Manual pentru femei de serviciu, Art, 2018). Like any respectable translator, she has an assistant. His name is Ninel, and he is a cat.
“To go back to normal” was what billions of people hoped for during the COVID-19 pandemic. But this going back to normal must be critically examined.
Political ecology offers a critical approach that can be applied to nature-society relations in cities on lockdown. I start from the assumption that the destruction of nature and social disturbances are part of the same phenomenon, with the same causes rooted in the “extractive regime” of natural resources. Extractivism has constantly pushed the geographic frontiers of human activity and economic growth, disturbing ecological balance, destabilizing communities, and generating countless crises. The COVID-19 pandemic is just one of them. From this point of view, going back to normal means going back to a state of permanent social and ecological crisis.
From a social perspective, going back to normal doesn’t make any sense for the disenfranchised of the world. For the poor and oppressed, for refugees, disaster and war victims, for the whole of humanity ultimately, the message of going back to normal obscures the cynical reality of global injustices. For many of them, going back to normal can only mean an intensification of the international organizations’ efforts to manage humanitarian crises. The pandemic has taken a higher toll on marginalized groups, with higher contagion and death rates, longer medical and more difficult economic recovery. Hundreds of millions of jobs were affected. The predicted rise in global poverty is worrying. And unequal access to vaccines makes the prediction even worse. The COVID-19 pandemic brought to the surface local and global inequalities, only to deepen them.
For nature, going back to normal means planetary ecological crisis. Going back to mining natural resources to fuel global capitalism is to resume irreversible destruction of ecosystems. The decrease in harmful activity at the start of the pandemic was a sign of hope for the protection of the environment. Air pollution decreased immediately. Industrial output and consumption went down, with many benefits for the environment. Before long however, record levels of pollution and environment degradation were once again reached. Moreover, new forms of environmental destruction proliferated, such as those related to disinfectants and health protection products. Face masks have made it into the oceans, only adding to the huge problem of plastic pollution. With life moving online, there was boost in the production and sale of new electronic devices, parallel with the discarding of obsolete ones. All this only deepened the global ecological crisis.
The city was the space where the new nature-society relation unfolded. Urban political ecology opens various avenues for exploring it. The first days of lockdown created a unique observational context, offering at the same time an opportunity for a reconfiguring of nature-society relations. The cars’ retreating from the roads not only reduced pollution but also made cities more pleasant places and instantly created opportunities for experimenting new ways of interacting with the urban space. It wasn’t so much the absence of people but that of cars that showed us a reversed image of global metropolises, creating possibilities for exploring alternative types of mobility. For a short while, the cities belonged to pedestrians and cyclists. It changed even the perception of distant landscapes: in Punjab, the residents of previously highly polluted cities could see for the first time the peaks of the Himalayas. The temporary halt of global tourism allowed big tourist cities to engage in a process of ecological regeneration. Webcam livestreams showed images of closed ski resorts in the Alps, unprecedented for the crowded mountains of Europe whose ecology has been strongly impacted by the winter sports industry. All these events can generate a certain ecological optimism, including about a post-pandemic reinvention of tourism.
The so-called “return of nature” in locked-down cities has opened up a new horizon for exploring the urban socio-ecology condition. An exceptional event in urban ecology was wild animals showing up in cities on lockdown, including tourist destinations such as Venice or Barcelona. The headlines in the international press read, “The bliss of a quiet period”, “Nature: liberated by lockdown,” or “Coronavirus: Wild animals enjoy freedom of a quieter world.” From a political ecology perspective, these situations serve as a reminder that urban nature includes wildlife, the borders between cities and wilderness are fluid, and we must be aware of the diverse forms nature takes in urban areas, forms that require to be both acknowledged and protected. In general, the pandemic transformed the interactions between nature and society beyond urban areas.
While all these evolutions could perhaps fuel our optimism, political ecology provides a critical lens for looking at them. First, the benefits of the short-lived improvement of the quality of the environment were unequally distributed, often limited to economically and socially privileged minority groups. Most often, the unequal access had to do with class or race. The unequal distribution of environmental benefits of lockdown in the cities signals underlying structural inequalities. On the one hand, there are people who enjoy economic security, those with post-materialist values, who could explore the spaces of freedom opened up by the lockdown and the special ecological condition of locked-down cities. The people who used the opportunities generated by the pandemic and lockdown enjoyed a social privilege, which was inaccessible or pointless for the majority of the population and, especially, for marginalized social groups. On the other hand, from an ecological perspective, it is a matter of concern that the respite for nature under lockdown was followed by the violent resuming of policies driven by economic growth, a model that relies on the extraction of natural resources.
From a political ecology perspective, the current pandemic was predictable and only confirmed the disaster caused by the global extractive economy, which pushed the frontier of humanity farther and farther into wild nature. “While the pandemic felt novel or abrupt to the general public, it is a conjunctural outcome of global processes set in motion centuries ago.” The cutting down of tropical forests and wildlife trade were two of the most intensely discussed topics in political ecology. The publicity around zoonoses problematizes once more nature-society relations as constituted by the global economy. Unfortunately, instead of a critical approach that would take into account global capitalism, privatization, and exploitation of the environment, the topic was mainly debated from the perspective of a diffuse responsibility of humans who, for having mistreated nature, now have to bear the backlash. These narratives do nothing more than personify nature and deflect responsibilities instead of identifying the causes of the socio-ecological crisis and outlining solutions. As a result, during the first months of the pandemic, many headlines informed us that “Nature is sending us a clear message,” “We did it to ourselves” because of our “promiscuous treatment of nature,” and this was only “the tip of the iceberg.” Blaming Chinese produce markets was another way to circumvent global responsibilities for the pandemic. However, it should be noted that the entire scientific community had been consistently raising the alarm for the past decades, but it was only during the pandemic that their messages got the necessary media coverage.
Capitalizing on the scientific consensus about the origin of pandemics, political ecology goes further in its critical examination of the illusion that we could go on exploiting and selectively repairing ecosystems. This illusion of control over nature is embedded in the very ideology supporting global capitalism and the extractive regime of natural resources. This regime continuously generates ecological and social crises. In this sense, the COVID-19 pandemic was an “unnatural disaster,” and a sign that pandemics could become the norm instead of the exception. Therefore, instead of an anthropomorphized nature that throws viruses created in its jungle laboratories at us, we should be afraid of this model that relies on infinite economic growth, the continuous mining of natural resources, and marked social inequalities. Now, this is also the very model behind the urge to go back to normal.
Locked-down cities provide critical observational contexts and point to possibilities to reform environmental policy. From a political ecology perspective, the question is how to integrate the imperative to protect nature and social justice into environment policy. The pandemic deepened the many social inequalities: the poor, blacks, homeless persons, refugees, and persons with disabilities had to bear costs incomparably higher that those borne by the economic elites in the context of the pandemic. The ecological consequences were unevenly distributed in the locked-down cities of the world, as the benefits were experienced differently depending on one’s social group or economic position and the costs were mainly borne by marginalized groups. Lockdowns also problematized the ecological divide between villages and cities. Rural areas continued to be exploited through intensive farming, deforestation, and everything else extractive economy. So, through the lens of political ecology, rural areas appear to function as hinterlands of large cities, the locus of the global agricultural production and natural resource exploitation, and not as autonomous socio-ecological spaces. This treatment of extra-urban space as a space of extraction and production generates multiple crises, the recent pandemic included. This then explains why it is considered that the COVID-19 pandemic had its epicenter in the “global urban periphery.”
Finally, we could recall that famous phrase Churchill was credited for: “never let a good crisis go to waste.” The medical crisis turned out to be rooted in an underlying crisis, both ecological and social. This crisis that is not so much conjunctural as it is structural is generated by the extractive economy which is relentlessly mining the global natural resources in a social system characterized by deep inequalities. Political ecology proposes a radical critique of extractive capitalism, the destruction of nature, and the extreme social inequalities associated with it. The pandemic has offered states and societies a unique opportunity to experiment with social and ecological reforms. If the fight to reduce inequalities, discrimination, and social exclusion is to be effective, it requires rethinking the environmental policy. So far, the countries of the world have encouraged going back to normal according to the old model of growth, which combines mining natural resources with inequality and poverty, i.e., the model of extractive capitalism. But this could not obliterate an awareness of alternatives. Reform proposals include, among others, giving up the model of development based on economic growth, focusing instead on “redistribution and care,” reducing consumption, regenerative farming, or cancelling the foreign debt of poor countries. The alternatives are possible, so by letting this pandemic go to waste and going back to normal, we only normalize a deep ecological and social crisis.
TRANSLATED FROM ROMANIAN BY IOANA MIRUNA VOICULESCU
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