Issues of Sustainability

By reading the landscape of the city, one is able to observe the environmentally and socially detrimental effects and thus unsustainable mark of the capitalist system.  Robert Ross and Kent Trachte assert that there exist “command centers” out of which come financial and corporate decisions of great social and political import. We acknowledge these centers as the modern day city and an apt site to analyze the global system of capitalism (Ross 104). As the two pioneers of research on global cities affirm, “The concentration of the institutional forms of capital in banks, financial institutions, and global enterprises, and the centralization of their headquarters in global cities, are widely understood and noted in the political economy of global capitalism” (Ross 105). Though prominent actors in the global system of capitalism, these institutions are embedded in place and, further, imbedded in place are people.

Saskia Sassen highlights the paradoxical notion of the global system’s necessary attachment to the local in Cities and Communities in the Global Economy.  She presented the fact that the resources necessary to fuel these command centers are not “hypermobile” but rooted (Sassen 84).  While the function of capitalism depends on the hypermobility of ideological capital as enabled by technological advances, financial inventions like securitization, and the demand for participation of workers and consumers, the system also foundationally depends on physical exploitation both environmentally and socially (Sassen 86).

The very basic way the health of the economy is calculated, Gross Domestic Product (GDP), points to the concretized scientific evidence that capitalism has detrimental effects on the environment. In short, GDP is one economic measure that is used to capture the state of economy; the output measure (the value of goods and services produced), the expenditure measure (the value of goods and services purchased), and the income measure (the value of income generated) all theoretically produce the same number referred to as GDP (Q & A). Growth, therefore, is the buzzword of capitalism because the system is literally built to fail without it. As a result, the population, CO2 concentration, the Northern hemisphere’s average surface temperature, the loss of tropical rainforest, water use, species extinction, paper consumption, motor vehicles, exploitation of fisheries, foreign investment, and ozone depletion have all increased tenfold alongside GDP since the inception of capitalism in 1950 (Special Report). (here)


The exploitative processes that fuel capitalism do not only threaten the environment but also human vitality.  Achille Mbembe and Sarah Nuttall explore the topic in Writing the World from an African Metropolis. They argue that not only can capitalism be understood as a collection of infrastructures, technologies, and legal entities but it is also comprised of actual people. They continue, “The city is a place of manifold rhythms, a world of sounds, private freedoms, pleasures, and sensations.” (Mbembe 360) These senses are localized yet vast; the individual, specifically a person located in an aforementioned “command center,” experiences the effects of the global capitalist system on their daily life and their experience of said senses.

Inevitably, exorbitant amount of waste is produced by a global system that requires people’s constant production and consumption in order to ensure its continued existence. The intrinsic access presents a space, a niche to be occupied, out of which localized cultures divergent from the mainstream have arisen. The film, The Gleaners and I, introduces a concept foreign to the American mainstream: people can respectfully sustain themselves by scavenging.  In keeping with French tradition, the process of gleaning or collecting what others have discarded is a culturally acceptable act that transcends age, class, ethnicity, regions, and professions (The Gleaners and I).  Along the same lines, freeganism has arisen as an anticonsumerist movement in the United States of America similarly making use of society’s waste.

The New York Times published an article entitled Not Buying It about the growing movement of freegans, a term similar to vegans except instead of forsaking animal products we oppose what we see as out-of-control consumerism. (here) In the article, a fellow participant’s conviction is quoted, “Freegans would argue that the capitalist system is not sustainable. You’re exploiting resources. Most people work 40-plus hours a week at jobs they don’t like to buy things they don’t need.” (Kurutz) This observation is as simple as it is enlightening. Capitalism is the root cause for overwhelmingly massive environmental degradation and exploitation of resources on a global scale while the local workforce, as expressed by a New York freegan, is caught in a cycle of working more to consume more, which detracts from the vital pleasures of which Mbembe speaks; capitalism is an artificial cycle dependent on growth (more resources, more labor, more consumption) but this is not sustainable growth for the environment or humanity. (here)

Detroit is an American city that is a prime example of when capitalism goes wrong. Detroit grew as every other American city in response to the industry boom produced by capitalist markets prior in the 1950’s. Population grew in tandem with GDP so the city expanded to accommodate the growing population. With increased tax revenue came the incentive to improve and increase infrastructure.  The population growth, in keeping with the model exposed by New Scientist, meant more resources needed and the tax revenue went toward new projects to serve the city with public lighting, power lines, underground sewage, police and fire services, trash pickup, and snowplowing among them. Soon after, due to legal and political reasons Detroit was unable to capitalize on suburban growth, which meant the city was built to accommodate more people without a means to fund infrastructure (What the Hell). Detroit is the model post-industrial city where capitalism failed and people lost their livelihoods as a result.

The documentary Urban Roots highlights personal experiences of system failure in Detroit and the inspirational community-led urban farming initiative that arose in response.  Much like freegans, these locals saw what society had discarded and made use of the waste; the collapsed industrial city dwellers acknowledged many blighted lots and utilized the space to grow food for the community. The producer describes the film as a beautiful upwelling of the human spirit and participants, revitalized and uplifted, have defined a new system of sustenance for themselves in the city. (Urban Roots) (here)

What happens when (not if) capitalism fails?  The solution is here but it’s outside of the legal limits of the state as built around the unsustainable system of capitalism. (here) As a Detroit resident recalled in Urban Roots, “I saw a commercial on the television for McDonald’s and it said, ‘Leave breakfast to the experts.’  What it’s suggesting is the average person is not really capable of making breakfast for themself and that we need to abdicate that responsibility to someone who knows more about it.  And I think that’s what happens in American society in general that we’re convinced that there are some experts who are more qualified to run our lives than we are to run our own lives.” (here) The lesson, therefore, is that it is the people’s responsibility NOT “some experts,” i.e. government officials and all matter of “authority” acting in the interest of capitalism, who are responsible for shaping their own lives with consideration for humanity and environmental sustainability.  The unfulfilling cyclical nature of the system that is freegan identified as essentially “work more so you can buy more of what you don’t need” will hopefully give out before industry-induced climate change necessitates a change with a new system of sustainable popular sovereignty in capitalism’s place. (here) (here) (here) (here) (here) and especially (here)

Works Cited

  • “Q&A: What is GDP?” BBC News: Business. 26 April 2011. Web.  27 November 2012.<http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-13200758&gt;
  • Kurutz, Steven. “Not Buying It.” The New York Times. 21 June 2007. Web. 10 November2012. <http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/21/garden/21freegan.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0&gt;
  • Mbembe, Achille and Sarah Nuttall. “Writing the world from an African Metropolis.”Public Culture. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004.
  • Ross, Robert and Kent Trachte. “Global Cities and Global Classes: The Peripheralization of Labor in New York City.” The Global Cities Reader. Ed. Neil Brenner. New York: Routledge, 2006. 104-110.
  • Sassen, Saskia. “Cities and Communities in the Global Economy.” The Global CitiesReader. Ed. Neil Brenner. New York: Routledge, 2006. 82-88.
  • “Special Report: How Our Economy Is Killing The Earth.” New Scientist: Science in Society. 16 October 2008. Web. 26 November 2012. <http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg 20026786.000-special-report-how-our-economy-is-killing-the-earth.html>
  • The Gleaners and I. Dir. Agnès Varda. Perf. Bodan Litnanski and François Wertheimer. Zeitgeist Films, 2001. Film.
  • Urban Roots. Dir. Mark MacInnis. Tree Media, 2010. Film.
  • “What the Hell is Happening in Detroit? Everything You Need to Know About Detroit’s Financial Crisis.” Stories from the Great Lakes State: FOUND MICHIGAN. 18 April 2012. Web. 27 November 2012.<http://www.foundmichigan.org/wp/2012/04/18/what-the-hell-is-happening-in-detroit/

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