The Unending Frontier: An Environmental History of the Early Modern World is a series of case studies looking at what happened when organized pre-industrial administrative states or globalized markets came in contact with other human societies with less organizational capacity and power. It was a little dry, but I really liked the diversity of examples and the way they fed into each other, knitting together almost 300 years of history, from about 1500 to 1800. I’d highly recommend it to anyone who wonders what the global economy looked like in its awkward teenage years.
This is the first time that all the disparate parts of the human world became connected persistently, with flows of information, material resources, pathogens, culture and people growing almost continuously throughout. Communication and travel weren’t fast, but they were reliable enough that people kept doing them, and built huge economic and cultural and political structures around globe-spanning trade. Capital markets that vaguely resemble what we have today were starting to form. The state and market apparatus were sophisticated enough in some places to wield huge collective resources in very focused ways, impacting huge populations and natural resource stocks, even for what seem like kind of trivial ends. European fashion trends and status hierarchies nearly drove the North American beaver to extinction, dramatically reshaping the watersheds of half a continent.
I’ve been listening to The Fall of Civilizations podcast a lot. It’s weirdly calming in the midst of this hellscape of a year to hear stories of other times when everything fell apart completely. And yet somehow the world kept going. Through dark ages and forgetting, back to the beginning of our collective memory.
What remembering the past through oral storytelling lacks in fidelity, it partly makes up in simplicity. You can only hold so many stories in your head at once. They evolve over time, but if you don’t remember the way the story used to be, then it isn’t like that anymore. Those other versions of the past just fall away. Once you start writing things down, the narratives proliferate in parallel. It becomes much harder to forget, much harder to agree what happened, or even what is happening. Paradoxically once you start keeping careful notes, you’re overwhelmed by just how many options there are to choose from.
And occasionally, we reshuffle the deck and sift through the library as individuals, or as a society, and choose which volumes we want to highlight. Which ways we want to remember ourselves, and the story of how we got here. We can lose and remake our Official Past in the same way we occasionally discover a new Official Future, when the old one starts going stale.
So we find ourselves here with a tangled multiplicity of histories, stories about how we got to where we are — and even flamboyant disagreement about where we are. Never mind having a sane discussion about where it is we’re going.
Thanks to a pointer from Claudia Thiem I found this short exploration of the origins and form of Red Vienna — a few decades between the world wars when the city of Vienna had a robust social democratic government, and almost city-state like autonomy. They decided to implement constructive socialist policies at the scale of the city. But it apparently wasn’t just socialism happening in the city, rather it was a more comprehensive leftist urbanism. I’ve heard a lot about this period, but haven’t found a good English language text to read yet. If you have one to suggest, please let me know!
Red Vienna seems especially interesting in its contrast to other socialist development schemes. Austrian socialism was explicitly pro-city, rather than romanticizing and idealizing the rural peasant (or yeoman farmer… if you prefer Thomas Jefferson). What happens when leftists wholeheartedly embrace the city as their platform for change instead of heading back to the land? There’s so much more opportunity for connection and communication and interaction with each other and the other facets of society in cities — and much more in the way of economic opportunity to work with.
More than social housing: a leftist urbanism
Obviously plenty of other socialist governments built housing in cities — but typically in the deeply anti-urban form of isolated repetitive towers or apartment blocks. In Vienna the socialist project didn’t just happen to take place in the city, it was about re-imagining the city as a platform for equitable living.
Richard Rothstein's recent book The Color of Law looks at the history of racism in US housing policy. It focuses especially on African Americans, and the constitutionality of these policies in light of the reconstruction era amendments that ended slavery.
Throughout the book, Rothstein makes a big point of the difference between de jure (in law) segregation and de facto (in fact) segregation. The purpose of the book (belied in its subtitle: "A forgotten history of how our government segregated America.") is to remind us that residential segregation did not just happen because private citizens expressed discriminatory preferences. Instead, he lays out the gory details of how government at all levels — through laws, official policies, financing terms, and officially sanctioned lack of enforcement — has enacted de jure segregation for more than a century. This has often included creatingand enforcing segregation where it did not previously exist, in the West, and in the northern industrial centers as successive waves of migration from the South took place in the first half of the 20th century. He argues that because this segregation was perpetrated by the government, with the full force of law, we have a constitutional obligation to ameliorate the harm it has done to generations of African Americans.
The book felt kind of like a hybrid between Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow (about successive & evolving systems of black subjugation after the end of slavery, especially drug-war mediated mass incarceration) and Kenneth T. Jackson's Crabgrass Frontier (a history of suburbanization in the US). One of the main themes in The New Jim Crow is the remarkable adaptability of our systems of race-based social control. We outlawed slavery, but just a few decades later, Jim Crow was in full force, disenfranchising blacks throughout the south. The Civil Rights reforms of the 1960s outlawed many Jim Crow practices, but it wasn't long before the War on Drugs and mass incarceration had filled the gap.
Murder Machines: Why Cars Will Kill 30,000 Americans This Year. A good essay-length look at how social norms regarding streets and safety have changed over the last century, and why our current norms and design guidelines lead very predictably to tends of thousands of preventable deaths each year. Covers a lot of the same territory as Peter D. Norton’s excellent book Fighting Traffic, which gives a detailed historical account of the transition, between about 1915 and 1930, from streets being universally accessible public space to being nearly the sole domain of motorized transportation. Ralph Nader effectively spearheaded a campaign for safety measures that protect those inside these deadly vehicles. We need just as powerful a champion for those outside them, who make up about a third of all motor vehicle casualties in the US. Streets don’t have to be designed to kill people. Giving up a little bit of convenience for motorists frees up a lot of space and safety for everyone else.
I am now in this place where you should never come. We call it Onkalo. Onkalo means hiding place. In my time it is still unfinished, though work began in the 20th century when I was just a child. Work will be completed in the 22nd century, long after my death. Onkalo must last 100,000 years. Nothing built by man has lasted even a tenth of that time span. But we consider ourselves a very potent civilization.
If we succeed, Onkalo will most likely be the longest lasting remains of our civilization. If you, some time far into the future find this, what will it tell you about us?
It isn’t often that you find people seriously thinking about deep time in a concrete way. Usually it’s abstract, just a thought experiment, not an engineering problem or a gut wrenching moral quandry. But this is apparently not the case for the Scandinavians who have taken on the task of storing their spent nuclear fuel. Finland has decided to go forward with permanent storage, in a typically responsible, deliberate, earnest Nordic way.