What would we give up to save ourselves? What would we relinquish (and embrace) to rewild Earth?  These are some of the questions provoked by Planet City, the latest project by film director and speculative architect Liam Young. Speculating on how we could reverse city sprawl spreading over every corner of the world, it sees climate change as “no longer a technological problem, but rather an ideological one, rooted in culture and politics”.

Verticle Orchard from Planet City.

Over the past year 18 million hectares of Australian bushland scorched, fires raged in California and Brazil, and the Amazon rainforest, the Earth’s lungs, is predicted to become a savannah, a grassland that might suit the beef ranchers but would herald a chilling era of planetary emphysema.

Meanwhile petrochemical plastics are bioaccumulating in oceanic life; they are slowly, yet irrefutably infiltrating the darkest corners of Earth’s ecosystems, the deepest trenches of the oceans, the bodies of krill, the flesh of fish, the stomachs of whales, and us.

In China, Bangladesh, India and areas of Africa, catastrophic flooding flushes fertile soil out to sea. Last year Death Valley hit the highest recorded temperature on Earth, at 54.4C, whilst Antarctic temperatures rose above 20C for the first time. And Australia’s Barrier Reef is bleaching and slowly dying. You’ve seen it on Netflix.

Code Walker costume by Yeohlee Teng. Artists, Ane Crabtree. Mask by Liam Young, Photo: Driely S, courtesy of Liam Young

Yet despite the undeniable visual evidence, the depressing facts and the science swirl in a toxic hotpot with corporate lobbying, right-wing evangelism, and a sauce of political self-interest. For and against, enable and excuse, the language mounts and conflates.

Liam Young’s new speculative film, Planet City, took this truth and began both as a conversation and a question. What would it look like if the knowledge, wisdom, systems and technologies that already wrap around us were successfully oriented and applied to design and urbanism to redress this unfolding tragedy?

Planet City unpacks the rationale, ethics, storylines and precincts of a speculative city. In part it is an overtly urban discourse, as the city is now the dominant human ecosystem. Yet beneath the why and how of Planet City rests the fundamental substrates of land and culture – the natural landscape within which an idea is made possible, and the cultural terrain in which human intentions become manifest.

Code Walker costume by Yeohlee Teng. Artists, Ane Crabtree. Mask by Liam Young, Photo: Driely S, courtesy of Liam Young

Human settlement has been, and is still, deeply entangled with the natural systems that enable and sustain it – whether within a small valley, bioregion or on a global scale.  We have subjugated nature to our own ends, converting wildernesses into agricultural hinterlands, altering ecologies, mass producing monocultures and pouring our peri-urban edges into nature.  The need for a design discussion of planetary proportions comes with no perhaps or maybe.

Planet City offers a lens through which to reflect upon and re-evaluate the moral structures and value systems that form the fundamental basis of our fractured and abusive relationship with the natural world. The project stipulates that this city for 10 billion is rational – pragmatically grounded in theoretically plausible capacity. But of course, Planet City is a speculation and a provocation. If we can do this. If we can recycle our cities and retreat to one last home. Emptying ourselves from land after land, relinquishing control back to nature, to live successfully at density together, to enact the great rewilding. If we can, then why aren’t we? Why are these design ideas and solutions so un-normal?

Algae Divers costume by Ane Crabtree, Mask by Liam Young, Photo: Driely S, courtesy of Liam Young

The problem and the answer is not technology. It is culture.

In reality it is unusual for humans to prioritize the needs of others over our own. We have an empathy deficit. And it’s one of the roots of our success. We have the capacity to yoke other species to our labour, to enlist animals and ecosystems to our bidding. And this rubs up against the true concepts of deep ecology and conservation – central propositions of Planet City – and prevents us from setting aside our own desires so as to protect the needs of other species.

However, the whole concept of conservation itself also needs some unpacking. I recently read an article published by Michael Brune, the executive director of the Sierra Club, the largest grassroots environmental organization in the United States. He wrote about the racist attitudes and support of white supremacy by the club’s founder, John Muir. The article came as a surprise to me, as I clearly remember that in the 1990s, while I was studying environmental science, that Muir was viewed with reverence. The article made me reconsider the origins and trajectory of what we commonly, and righteously, call conservation.

In 1889, Muir pushed his pencil across a map of the Sierra Nevada mountain range to propose a grand, sweeping conservation measure, which resulted in the formation of Yosemite National Park. In the early 1900s his passionate advocacy captured the imagination of the president of the day, Theodore Roosevelt, who agreed with Muir’s request for additional protections for the park. Yosemite, the site of unparalleled natural wonders – geological and ecological – would thus become an international symbol to governments and civic society, a moral calling to preserve exceptional natural sites for generations to come.

Algae Divers costume by Ane Crabtree, Mask by Liam Young, Photo: Driely S, courtesy of Liam Young

The formation of Yosemite must have come as a foul blow to the Ahwahneechee people who had lived in the valley for generations, as the new national park, which some celebrated as a divinely American gesture of eternal preservation, did not consider ongoing access to ancestral lands to be of concern. To Muir, the conservation of pristine wilderness and Indigenous cultural rights and beliefs were clearly mutually exclusive.

The article I read clarified and apologized for the fact that for the Sierra Club, and the white upper-class conservationists that would form its early membership, exclusive, high-quality mountaineering and connection with the sacredness of nature (resulting in the exclusion of others) were the goals.

To not repeat mistakes of the past they need to be acknowledged as such. To understand whether we could (in fact ever) embrace any great act of planetary conservation is to reconcile and recast the origins and trajectory of what we commonly understand as our role in ‘protecting’ nature. This is the great modern lie.

Inhabitants of Planet City, the Zero Waste Weavers, with costume by Holly McQuillian, Kathryn Walkers and masks by Zac Monday and Aneesa Shami

Life and death decisions about what will live and what will die, what is conserved and what is not, are not only about greed, money and power. These decisions speak to a far deeper belief system – human primacy, and our control over nature. It rests at the core of our culture.

At its heart, the dominant Western view that humans sit at the apex of a natural order, in a role of dominion, is of course foundational within Christianity and reductive science. But when viewed through the twin lenses of religious expansionism and colonialism it takes on a far more troubling hue.

Throughout history, by divine decree, those in power – monarchies, courtiers, bishops, parliaments and their bailiffs, vice-regals and armies – legitimized and normalized the seizure of land and the exploitation of peoples, plants and animals, as hunting park, estate, quarry, slave and colony. Within this rubric, extraction for the accumulation of wealth was (is) normal, proper and wise. To invert this would be cataclysmic. In Planet City that is the point.

Inhabitants of Planet City, the Zero Waste Weavers, with costume by Holly McQuillian, Kathryn Walkers and masks by Zac Monday and Aneesa Shami

The status quo gave birth to the major colonial mills, mines and trading companies, the precursors to the industrial revolution that begat today’s multinational leviathans, the engineers at the levers of terraforming. It cemented within modern society the fundamental (perhaps foundational) notion that the environment consisted of a set of natural resources or assets to be tabulated and traded – commodities. Forest, ore, soil, fur, fish and flesh, all tools and treads of human actualization and economic progress. Nature is the altered architecture for modernity.

These extractivist systems are not unique to Western civilization. Indeed, the near total dominance today of the global economic systems of multilateral commodity trading, supply chains and neoliberalism, clarifies that we all now effectively “drink from the same cup”. Yet more and more mouths are turning away.

In many cultures the notion of power ‘over’ nature was or is anathema. For many of the world’s peoples, society is largely defined by a capacity to live successfully, over generations, as culture, within nature. These are perhaps the model citizens and early migrants, ecological exiles, the non-aligned who found Planet City.

Residentials from Planet City.

Looking at the litany of evidence that stimulated Planet City – climate change, pollution, extraction, oceanic decline, social inequality, the exploitation of other species  – it could be easy to get depressed. But designing is inherently an act of optimism. Planet City provides an opportunity for re-examining our priorities. It asks us to question upon what evidence and permission the decisions that shape the human relationship with the natural world are being made? Who are we designing for? And what is standing in the way? Biologists and environmental scientists increasingly ‘prove’ what countless Indigenous peoples have already said: that all life, all species and all ecosystems are deeply entangled and interdependent – from the humble microbe to the planetary climate and everything in between. Evolution together over billions of years has made it so.

 

So, as we reflect on our role in this situation, illuminated by an awareness of history, we can speculate together on whether we would choose to make this move together. Rather than accelerating together towards a dark precipice, wouldn’t it be wiser to agree that we are in fact part of nature, immensely vulnerable, and above all else – that we are in this together.

Planet City was commissioned by the National Gallery of Victoria and Ewan McEoin for the latest edition of the NGV Triennial, until 18, ngv.vic.gov.au

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