Red Earth: Don’t forget the cities!

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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!

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