Hands up who hasn’t had a gripe about one or more of the following, lately: roads,
public transport, schools, hospitals, housing, water shortages, power/gas supplies,
telecommunications? A lot of raised hands, I guess! All of these are examples of the
essential infrastructure that keeps our cities and towns going. Their failure is an important
environmental question. If our neighbourhoods fall apart, then so does society.
Yet this is occurring in all of the world’s urban centres. Those who can afford to pay
for it live in well-serviced communities. The rest of us live in featureless dormitories
in the far-flung suburbs and nearby rural towns. There, services are, firstly, scarce
and, secondly, in constant danger of technical failure or economic closure. And this is
Australia, one of the world’s wealthier countries. In poorer parts of the world, a safe
roof over one’s head is hard to come by. Recently, more than 30 people were killed
and injured in an apartment block collapse in Cairo. In Java, nearly 150 were killed
as landslides wiped away hundreds of houses. These disasters are artificial, caused by
the failure of big business and its various governments to manage urban planning and
maintenance. And the problem is urgent. Catastrophic failure, such as the collapse of the
levees protecting New Orleans, is often the only public warning that governments have
been negligent, if not corrupt, in their management of vital infrastructure.
The health of human environment is often way down the green agenda, behind global
warming, deforestation and the countless other examples of environmental degradation
arising from the actions of the market economy. Most of us now live in these crumbling
metropolises. The fact that we built our own surroundings does not make our cities and
towns any less a “natural” place for people to live. Cities can only be seen as opposed to
nature if this premise is also accepted: that people are separate from nature.
In his book, Grundrisse, revolutionary thinker, Karl Marx, wrote that there is no need to
question the unity of humanity and nature. What we need to question is the separation of
our society from the natural world. Marx argued that this separation arose from a more
fundamental one: the separation of humans from the products of our labour. The basis of
the capitalist market is wage labour: the alienation of ourselves — from what we make,
from control of our bodies and lives and therefore ultimately from the natural world.
When the fields were covered with towns, and the towns with cities, it was a positive
step for humanity. There are vast economies of scale in infrastructure and services.
Urbanisation went hand in hand with early capitalism, because it provided huge numbers
of wage labourers in a small area. But cities have another effect: they permit the wage
slaves to talk and to organise, to plan. The cities, meant to contain numbers of competing
individuals, quickly morphed into cradles of a solidarity not seen before in human
history. So capital and the city soon developed an uneasy relationship, which no amount
of liberal urban planning will overcome.
Cities, by their very nature, are collectives. But collectivism and the free market
are irreconcilable. That’s the fundamental economic reason for the decline in urban
amenities, which cannot be overcome in a capitalist economy. But the issue of the city
environment is vital for any answer to climate change. Neglect of cities, their basic
facilities and their by-products goes hand in glove with the oppression and suppression
of their inhabitants. Our homes must not be poisoned and allowed to fall into ruin. Where
to start? How about an annual environmental audit as part of every union enterprise
agreement? After all, under capitalism, we work to live. It’s only logical that we demand
of our bosses that we can live!