Overcapa-City: SF Megacities, Massive Urbanization, and Ecological Civilization

Multi-layered collage: Flock of flying geese and a sustainable energy biosphere hovering over an upcycled Mega-City One. Artwork: Colnate Group, 2024 (cc by nc)
Artwork: Colnate Group, 2024 (cc by nc)

Science fiction has never been about predicting the future. Rather, science fiction is about the shadow that the future casts over the present. This is also true of the future of the city, which has been sketched over and over again in pop culture, economics, and politics. And it is this shadow that we need to politicize when we think about urban ecologies in the face of climate breakdown, capitalist apocalypse, and polycrisis in general, argues Stefan Tiron in his contribution to the “Kin City” series.

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Our conjecture is that most cities in the Global North, such as the city where this text is written – Berlin – are destined to become an epiphenomenon, fading quietly into the noisy background. Perhaps it is time to accept becoming a sideshow to the drama unfolding elsewhere. The current dialectical inversion of the former “periphery” into the global center has fueled a politics of resentment at the highest levels of government or executive milieu, ranging from app bans to various forms of tech-denialism and rejectionism to a rekindled protectionism, albeit one with a nasty throwback to a racist “white fear” literature that still fuels today’s conspiratorial and deadly “replacement” theories.

Second fiddle to the global “energy transition” drama

Please consider this my partial response to Adam Tooze’s provocative but urgent question articulated in his “Carbon Letter: Chartbook 284”: “Are Western governments and societies willing to prioritize the energy transition if it is not their drama, not their success story?”.

Yes, belated attempts at decarbonization (too little, too late) and just transition (rethinking ecological exceptionalism) are the primary drama of our time, but I argue here that this is only one side of a larger shift in productive forces, a geopolitical and demographic balancing act crowned by a transition that challenges the relevance and proportionality of the Global North.

A number of major blind spots have emerged from China’s enormous and unsuspected rewiring of the infrastructural, geopolitical, and future pathways that tend to overlap at a crucial moment in the history of humanity and capitalism. I was able to locate some of these blind spots using a variety of sources, from pop culture (comic books) to recent venture capitalist manifestos, from recent studies on Belt and Road cities to leftist debates on degrowth vs. eco-modernism, including my experience with guided urban disaster detours.

Shadows of the future and vulgar techno-optimism

Pseudo-scientific theories of race and eugenics arose under the auspices of the “Industrial Revolution” and High Imperialism, when the industrial core countries subjugated and exploited large parts of the planet. At the time, this was considered an accomplished fact of “civilizational” impact, but these toxic theories are still alive today in a new guise, that is, in the ideological bundle of TESCREALism: TESCREAL = “transhumanism, extropianism, singularitarianism, cosmism, rationalism, effective altruism, and long-termism”.

Like their ancestors, they are both aberrant and dysgenic, having instilled in the Global North a false sense of value and mission in the world. Blinded and blissfully isolated by their own uncontested and unassailable techno-scientific position on the world stage, the countries of the industrial core have used science fiction to project power, but also to think the unthinkable, experience the un-experienceable, or dare to utter unspeakable thoughts about themselves and others: “What if we’re committing genocide against many others? What if the world isn’t made for us? Who are we? What if we’re not the end of history?”

Science fiction has never been about predicting the future, as most vulgar techno-optimists and singularitarians continue to promise us. Rather, science fiction is “about the shadow the future casts on the present,” as philosopher and media critic Steven Shaviro wrote in his book “Connected, or What It Means to Live in the Network Society” (2003), which severely dampened the boundless enthusiasm for connectivity and networking.

De-westernizing developmentalism and a new “Bandung Woods”

Some of us listen to the cogent calls of the Senegalese development economist N’dongo Samba Sylla for a de-Westernization of developmentalism, while looking ahead to a remaking of the global financial order as a possible new Bandung Woods to succeed the regressive Bretton Woods. Liberalism in the Global North seems to be caught in an incessant loop of catching up with the rest of the world. It is even catching up with itself, as seems to be the case with VC Balaji Srinivasan’s libertarian Network State fantasmagoria resulting from techno-fascist and plutocratic continuities.

Indeed, comparing Tommaso Marinetti’s “Manifesto del Futurismo” (1909) with the “Techno-Optimist Manifesto” (2023), written by the co-founder of the US venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, may seem outrageous at first glance, but the initial valid point remains: the crisis of not being at the center of the world drama.

The techno-optimism of software went hand in hand with the breaking of the power of the unions and the pessimism of Fordism. The rejection of both Leninism-Taylorism and vertical integration in the car industry seems to have been a bad decision, if we consider what Paolo Gerbaudo aptly calls “The Electrical Vehicle Developmental State.” It has long been clear that financial derivatives, like all abstractions of capital, are powerful operational fictions, but they have blindfolded many “immaterialists” to the point where everyone has begun to regard the supremacy of finance capital over industrial capital as a fait accompli, not a fairy tale that capitalists like to tell themselves.

Financialized capitalism and dialectical materialism

Recent books such as O. Sanchez-Sibony’s “The Soviet Union and the Construction of the Global Market” (2023) even venture into the terrain of alternative history, where the Soviet Union, the Evil Empire incarnation of the Reagan era, did something more devious than all the Cold Warriors could have imagined. Sanchez-Sibony rearticulates and reintegrates the Soviet Union into the world system, giving it enough agency to push the U.S. off the golden standard into ever higher levels of “idealistic” abstraction and speculative fervor, while tying it to fossil fuel futures and geo-historical path-dependency in a tragic coup of dialectical materialism just before it faded into the shock therapy of the 1990s.

Again, no one in the Global North saw this coming, just another blind spot in a long historical series that includes both the October Revolution happening in a backward, semi-feudal country and the dissing of the resolve and resilience of the Chinese Communists during the Chinese Civil War while betting on their ideological rivals, as Carlos Martinez argues.

The massive atmospheres of the southern megaregions

The mutations in the global background resulting from the limited Western experience of the megacity are, to put it with Alfred North Whitehead (1967) “dim, massive, and important”. The Global City (Saskia Sassen, 1991) – which has conquered and ravaged our dreams, urban imagination, and urban dwelling – has emerged in the last 40 years out of a particular historical and geopolitical athanor. The Global City was not meant to be global forever, because, as Simon Curtis and Ian Klaus argue in “The Belt and Road City” (2024), it “draws its form and power from a historically specific combination of globalized finance capital and US geopolitical hegemony”.

Participants in a 2024 discussion in the Royal Geographical Journal focusing on “massive urbanization” have added to the Whiteheadian background amplitude a double, countervailing meaning of “massive” in Jamaican patois: “an inordinate lack of sensitivity to the real conditions taking place, a sense of extreme self-inflation beyond reason” as well as the togetherness of “a collectivity emerging without a fixed form, but reflecting a desire for cooperation and mutuality”.

Understanding “massive urbanization” as conceived as “both the massive expansion of speculative accumulation, the extraction of land value, the replication of great inequalities and dysfunctions, and the continuous emergence of new forms of urban inhabitation, a constant remaking of the social field by the so-called urban majority” we need to read the notion of “atmospheres of massiveness” in the Global South as a plea for an emancipatory politics that requires “the transcendence of excess.” In this sense, a “massive atmosphere, capable of absorbing what would seem to undermine any prospect of territorial and socio-political coherence, instead comes to stand for a capacity.” What is usually seen as an excess of population, an excess of chaos, an excess of everything, is transformed by the black diagnosis into an “inordinate capacity and a site of intervention.”

To put this into perspective: In the preface to “The Routledge Handbook of Planning Megacities in the Global South” (2020), editor Deden Rukmana acknowledges that there are surprisingly few books on international planning of megacities and that this is the first to “specifically discuss the planning of megacities in the Global South.”

Intrinsically distinct from those in the Global North

There has been a recent boom in infrastructure studies, as coverage, conceptualization, and evaluation of China’s massive infrastructure and standardization efforts become more consistent. And for good reason, as this is probably the most ambitious infrastructure project in human history, or at least since the Marshall Plan, which was clearly aimed at rebuilding the old industrial core after World War II. Electrification is animating its vast tendrils. The scale of this energy surge is still hard to grasp, but since China, with a population of 1.2 billion, had ~95% electrification in 1995, this still meant that 60 million people had no access to electricity. Officially, according to China Daily, China achieved full 100% electrification in 2015 when the last two villages, Guomang and Changjiang, turned on their light bulbs.

There’s a bigger story here. According to the United Nations’ World Cities Report, there were 31 megacities worldwide in 2016, with 24 of those cities in the Global South, and that number is expected to rise to 41 by 2030, with all ten new megacities growing in an urbanization process that is “inherently different from those in the Global North.”

The Belt and Road City

In the aforementioned book “The Belt and Road City,” Simon Curtis and Ian Klaus trace the vague contours of the Digital Silk Road, which spells the end of the Global City and highlights the historically unprecedented catch-up situation of the Global North. What is not mentioned is that financialized capitalism and undisciplined neoliberal triumphalism with its TINA-mantra have undermined all dreams of the future and fragilized infrastructures in both North and South.

Indeed, as we soon reach the peak of the New Cold War tenor, the Belt and Road City tome is memorable at least for attempting to fully embrace the modularity and unpredictability of such a massive undertaking: BRI tianxia in cyberspace. China’s state-led approach of a more or less improvised and retconned (retroactive continuity) attempt to remake the architecture of the Internet can be truly frightening to some, since “cities are the fabric through which government is woven.” But aren’t we all waking up to the fact that it’s not all an “ideational process”? Not just China, but all of us must “learn from facts,” as Deng Xiaoping’s radical empiricist slogan goes. If the Belt and Road Cities are “the material expression of a Chinese-led form of international society,” the same goes for the Global Cities, which were expressions of a highly financialized capitalism backed by US power.

Degrowth communism meets the ecological civilization

Anthony Galuzzo’s “Against the Vortex: Zardoz and Degrowth Utopias in the Seventies” (2023) and Kai Heron’s multi-pronged critique of leftist eco-modernism show: Walter Benjamin’s meaning of revolution as humanity’s attempt to pull the emergency brake feels essential today. Sean Caroll’s review of “Against the Vortex” is spot on, because even if Galuzzo’s take on the 1974 film “Zardoz” as a meta-narrative of what went wrong with Sillicon Valley techno-solutionism is refreshing, it would still benefit from Kohei Saito’s argument for degrowth communism.

More to the point, we should also consider ex-late East Bloc or even Soviet eco-socialist science fiction responses to the Anglophone interrogation of “War on Nature”-Prometheanism from the perspective of the abolition of capitalism. If we recall the 1970s decade of financialization, oil crisis, and degrowth utopias in the Global North, we still have to contend with a China that embarked on its own adventure, one that led it unsuspectingly toward something like an “ecological civilization,” even if it is far too early to qualify it as such.

Geneva Disaster Detours

During the exhibition “Adversity & the Beast” from 2015, benefiting from the generous umbrella of Utopiana aristic residency and hiding under the name Department Zero, I was part of the duo (with Lucas Cantori) organizing Geneva Disaster Detours. Department Zero became popular mainly through the trashy pulp novels written under the pseudonym of Radu Cinamar. The fictional Department Zero was an arm of the infamous Romanian Securitate (the equivalent of the Stasi in Nicolae Ceaușescu’s Romania), supposedly trained by the Chinese secret services in psychotronic and extra-sensory warfare against “capitalist roaders.”

Taking the fictions of Department Zero at face value, we led our tour participants not to CERN but to what was going on above ground, exploring obscure and nonsensical fears about mini-black holes and very palpable Swiss Leaks. We also used EM detectors, Geiger counters, and walkie-talkies to sharpen and amplify the wavelengths of the city, its massive and invisible infrastructural proclivities, and its catastrophic dimensions. No one could have predicted that, years later, the anxieties of the Huawei G5 would hit the Global North with such intensity. We ourselves were guided by our Disaster Detour city walk fifth sense and trained by discarded cultural pop remnants and cataclysmic know-how, listening to the dim rhythms of the megacity.

Fictional megacities and the urban majority

The final blind spot comes from one comic book series in particular: Judge Dread, named after the “ultimate lawman of the future” who brings law and order to the crime-ridden streets of Mega-City One, the overcrowded city on the east coast of the United States. It is a notorious British comic series about the “bandwidth of operations” and “generative confusion” of living in megacities, irreverently parsing the political economy of hyper-modernism with countercultural flair. It extrapolates from the fact that an “urban majority” will live in huge megacities.

I am now convinced that this comic series is about more than “future crime” and brutal judges (a legalistic police force equated with US police militarization). It is about megacities themselves, a future sci-fi megacity as a collective entity or process of massive urbanization, noting that in 1977 the series’ authors could only extrapolate from London and New York, while most megacities and their relatives exist elsewhere, out of sight but hopefully not out of mind, in the Global South.

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