Slowdown Papers
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Slowdown Papers

Afternoon walk, Stockholm 3 April 2020

12: Between the roots and the stars

Another green world lying just beneath ours; what our response to the coronavirus can learn from the night sky after Katrina, a 6000 year-old eel machine in Victoria, and a spruce tree in Sweden.

There is a long tradition of speculative narrative about the world lying just beneath ours, of disasters that forcing us to consider our societies, our goals, our patterns of living. Rather than the shock zombie horrors of ’28 Days Later’, it’s the expressions of Edward Judd’s world-weary Fleet Street journalist in ‘The Day The Earth Caught Fire’ (1961), or Bruno Lawrence’s shattered scientist in ‘The Quiet Earth’ (1985), that seem particularly apposite now. Those scenes, in some way, mirror the strangely quiet, slow, and confusing world immediately outside of many of our windows right now.

Again, some things are oddly positive, such as the return of wildlife to the streets. One of the more beautifully unsettling scenes in ‘Children of Men’ is described by Mark Fisher in his essay Capitalist Realism: “public space is abandoned, given over to uncollected garbage and stalking animals (one especially resonant scene takes place inside a derelict school, through which a deer runs).”

Deers already inhabit the suburb of Stockholm I live in, prancing through the loosely demarcated backyards around here, grazing on the fallen fruit. It’s all too easy to imagine them running through the derelict local high school building, as oddly confronting as that would be. Could it ever be normal to live in a city alongside nature in this way? Yet recall CS Lewis, speaking from wartime Britain: “Life has never been normal.”

There are many parallel discussions running alongside the ideas in these papers, primarily in conversation with my friend and colleague Indy Johar, of Dark Matter Labs. Together, we’re working on studio formats for various partners and collaborators, helping develop a pre-emptive understanding of scenarios for these second-order impacts, , across various diverse areas. These include everything from neighbourhood retrofits to new tools for democratic decision-making, provenance-focused traceability and regenerative food systems, medical logistics and strategic entrepôts, non-grid energy, water, waste infrastructures and ‘safe-touch’ yet social recycling and circular hubs, active shared micro-mobility and life-long learning … The usual set. I’m posting nothing about that here as it definitely has the air of a plan, a sense of action, and this is a space for more open reflection. I hope I can describe it further soon, though.

“Do you think people ever learn anything?” — Excerpt from Stephen King’s killer virus-thriller, ‘The Stand’

In one of the many memorable stories in her book A Paradise Built in Hell’, Rebecca Solnit describes a more intense version of the Slowdown’s removal of assumed systems, and what it reveals in its place:

“In some of the disasters of the twentieth century — the big northeastern blackouts of in 1965 and 2003, the 1989 Lomo Prieta earthquake in the San Francisco Bay Area, 2005’s Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast — the loss of electrical power meant that the light pollution blotting out the night sky vanished. In these disaster-struck cities, people suddenly found themselves under the canopy of stars still visible in small and remote places … You can think of the current social order as something akin to this artificial light: another kind of power that fails in disaster. In its place appears a reversion to improvised, collaborative, cooperative and local society.” — Rebecca Solnit, ‘A Paradise Built in Hell’ (2010)

The corollary of one kind of system failure is that a new, or perhaps old, social order is revealed. The stars have been there all along.

Similarly, the vast and destructive Australian bushfires I opened this series with revealed not only the sorry state of Australian politics, but something rather more wonderful. At Budj Bim in Victoria, the intense burning stripped away vegetation to reveal an enormous 6,000 year-old aquaculture system — effectively a machined landscape designed for sustainable eel farming. As the rains followed the fire at Budj Bim, the system flooded and started working again. The lower image below shows water beginning to flow through the traps. The aquaculture system had been lying dormant since European colonisation, though few meaningful records exist, but it was so well-designed as to simply fire up again, once the contemporary landscape was stripped away. This machine is older than the Pyramids or Stonehenge, and still works. It puts the ‘perma-’ into permaculture. In the local Gunditjmara conceptual framework, it is a “deep time story”, representing a part of a period of habitation of at least 32,000 years.

Drone image of weir, Tyson Lovett-Murray. Image © Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation
‘Traps starting to flow!’, via Gunditj Mirring

As with the East Kolkata Wetlands, Budj Bim has a series of stepped traps such that eels are channeled from a nearby river into a low-lying area where they are kept in pools of water for harvesting. Significant engineering knowledge was required to move and build with the hundreds of tons of basalt rocks that comprise the weirs, dams, and channels. Ed Whelan reports, in discussion with Gunditjmara representative Denis Rose, project manager at non-profit group Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation:

“Budj Bim is so ingenious that it only trapped mature fish and allowed younger fish to escape to pools of water so that the population could be maintained. This means that the first inhabitants of Australia created a sustainable food supply that was in harmony with nature. It is also believed to be the oldest freshwater aquaculture system in the entire world.”

As with many examples in Paul Memmott’s wondrous book Gunyah, Goondie and Wurley’, Budj Bim is also an example of a sedentary fixed aboriginal Australian settlement, based around cultivation and farming, denying the British myth that indigenous Australians were nomads and hunter/gatherers, and thus ‘not civilised’.

Like the stars emerging during Katrina, the bushfires stripped away a contemporary artifice to reveal a deeper truth about our culture.

As Solnit writes, “People know what to do in a disaster”. The problem is that our systems don’t. They fail in the floods, the bushfires, and the viruses, just as they are failing the broader climate disaster. But need we collapse in order to rebuild them? Solnit’s book is called ‘A Paradise Built in Hell’ — are we so immature as to require a “hell” to be imposed upon us before we change?

We have changed, in the past. We have adapted. Even cities, the slowest of our slow-moving systems, indicate how adaptable we can be. All those firebombed cities I referred to still exist. Some, once burnt-out cities like Tokyo, now provide shining examples of just how to exist, with its internal clock-speeds driving multiple shearing layers of urban churn simultaneously.

It’s about time we learned not to make it so difficult for ourselves, though. The virus gives us a glimpse of what it would take to reverse climate crisis. Not the deaths, which must be avoided at all costs, but the slowing, the restoration, the regeneration, the re-discovery, the collective capability producing that sense of another green world within reach.

My frequent comparison with indigenous cultures in this piece had two primary purposes. The first was to provide design inspiration, to learn from nature-based technologies and ecoregion-based stewardship methods, to be woven alongside contemporary technologies and governance models, to introduce new forms of resilience. But the other point was simply to note that our modern world is indeed woefully immature compared to the longer-term success of adaptive, inventive indigenous cultures, with their deeper understanding of systems, assemblages, and how to be, with a quite different sense of time, both forwards and backwards. We seem to be the only part of these systems that does not understand that it is part of these systems, and acts as such. Trees talk to each other, as effectively one planetary-scale interconnected system. We cut trees down and turn them into toilet paper.

Bruno Latour, in his reading of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, writes of “the process of human development as neither liberation from Nature nor as a fall from it, but rather as a process of becoming ever-more attached to, and intimate with, a panoply of non-human natures.”

We will have to develop the practice of being intimate with systems — or as hyperobjects or assemblages or compositions or whatever — very quickly indeed, if we are to find new ways of aligning advanced yet resilient contemporary technologies with adapted nature-based technologies, shared-resource governance methods with radically diversifying cultures.

Old Tjikko, Dalarna, Sweden

In the middle of Sweden, there‘s a spruce tree called Old Tjikko. Carbon 14 dating has revealed that Old Tjikko is around 9,550 years old. For some years there was an almost existential argument amongst researchers about this tree — is the tree the individual shoots, or the root system beneath?

“The root is certainly a more decisive factor than that what is growing above ground. After all, it is the root that looks after the survival of an organism. Is is the root that has withstood severe changes in climatic conditions. And it is in the root that has regrown trunks time and time again. It is in the roots that centuries of experience are stored, and it is this experience that has allowed the tree’s survival to the present day. — Peter Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees (2016)

The Dalarna tree is its roots more than the transient visible system on the surface. The roots respond to shifts in environmental conditions and create new ways of living. We need not be hide-bound to ancient ways of being — we can create new branches, new fruit, new ecosystems — yet equally it would be foolish to continue ignoring the experience stored in the roots.

From a Swedish spruce to landscape-scale eel machines to Solnit’s stars — the constellations of society after Katrina, revealed when the dominant social order failed, the shining systems of collaboration and cooperation that were there all along — our shared root systems are where our collective memory is, where experiences are processed and learned from, and where we invent, prototype, and regenerate new ways of living.

To clarify, this does not mean fully reorienting what we do around indigenous practices, cooperatives, true sharing economies, and the like. A third of the people on this planet rather like things like iPads and Ikea, readily-available oat milk and ventilators—and the other two-thirds would appear to want to like them. A swing too far in in eco-communitarian direction would just be a different kind of nightmare.

But it does imply a rebalancing, a new fusion between nature-based technologies and understanding assemblages beyond systems, whilst curating the elements of contemporary life that work within planetary boundaries, that enable biodiversity to flourish, that produce health not diminish it, that reward cultural diversity and social equity rather than destroying it. Technologically, the shorthand would be East Kolkata Wetlands and Australian ‘cool burns’ but also taking advantage of satellite data, sensor networks, contemporary biomaterials, machine learning ... What would that mean culturally, socially, politically?

It’s a quite different sensibility for design and governance, and implies a thorough rebalancing of understanding we are part of these systems, but not at the top of a pyramid. Recall Tsing’s quote: “Landscapes more generally are products of unintentional design, that is, the overlapping world-making activities of many agents, human, and not human. The design is clear in the landscape’s ecosystem. But none of the agents have planned this effect. Humans join others in making landscapes of unintentional design.”

We must take notice of this ongoing moment. Remember it. Feel it. Talk about it. Identify the unintentional designs emerging. I write this article as a root, really a new twig, a place to store a memory in public. More importantly, we must start protecting the new roots outside the window as they adapt and grow in different directions — we need to remember the moment they emerged, what they became once they flourished, and what we did to help.

“As you all know, the Change was not a single solitary event. We speak of it in that manner because here we experienced one particular shift, of sea level and weather, over a period of years it is true, but it felt then and when we look back on it today still feels like an incident that happened, a defined moment in time with a before and an after. There was our parents’ world, and now there is our world.” — Excerpt from John Lanchester’s ‘The Wall’ (2019)

The chemical industry attempted to ban Rachel Carson’s ground-breaking 1962 book ‘Silent Spring’. Yet the book survived, and changed how many viewed the idea of the ‘the environment’. The world in general, though, only embarked upon an intensification of that degradation, such that approximately three decades after ‘Silent Spring’, in his 1989 book, ‘The End of Nature’, Bill McKibben described how nature has become subordinate to human behaviour, human systems, in ways that were not only destructive for nature, but also for us. Three decades after McKibben’s book, we are in only the early stages of a global pandemic which is wreaking havoc with a scale and ferocity we’ve never seen before, and is probably linked directly to loss of biodiversity and therefore the wider climate crisis, just as it can take advantage of our systems of resilience, weakened for the same reasons.

Yet in all this horror, there is another green world that could be emerging. Outside the window, there are weak signals that human systems could begin to reorient around biodiversity, around collaboration, around resilience. This repositioning of our values and politics, and the design processes, governance cultures, and economic models that articulate them, would enable us to not only prevent pandemics, but finally realise how to address the true crises of climate change, health and social justice together. Rather than an end, this would be a new beginning of nature.

“But there remains also the truth that every end in history also contains a new beginning; this beginning is the promise, the only ‘message’ which the end can ever produce. Beginning, before it becomes a historical event, is the supreme capacity of man; politically, it is identical with man’s freedom.“ — Hannah Arendt, ‘Origins of Totalitarianism‘ (1951)

Ed. These pieces were written late at night, over a few weeks from mid-March to early April 2020, in the early stages of the coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak. They picked up the thread of unfinished notes I’d started writing about the Australian bushfires. The ideas are informed by many conversations with Indy Johar of Dark Matter Labs in particular, as well as with Celia Romaniuk, members of the States of Change initiative, and colleagues at Vinnova. Discussions on the NFG WhatsApp group started by Noah Raford were, and remain, a particular source of inspiration, solace, peculiar insights, ridiculous GIFs, and warm camaraderie throughout this ongoing moment. I was an on-off member of an informal splinter-WhatsApp-group there, led by Noah, through which we produced a set of futures-oriented scenarios about the potential long term impact of COVID-19. I hope to post about that soon too.

Slowdown Papers

These are a series of observations, reflections and ideas, emerging from my view of the early impact of the coronavirus COVID–19 pandemic in the first quarter of 2020, but following the Australian bushfires over Christmas 2019.

1: Writing to memory

Observing, listening and writing, as a way of remembering the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, from within the midst of the slowdown.

2: The pitiless crowbar of events

How will we remember the coronavirus? While we are ‘flattening the curve’, how can we think about the curves beyond?

3: Remember the bushfires to remember the virus

The Australian bushfires and floods as harbingers of the coronavirus, and a world wearing masks and blinkers.

4: We make the virus and the virus makes us

The reversed dynamics of coronavirus and climate, and how the destruction of biodiversity that created the climate crisis probably also created the virus.

5: The curves beyond the curve

Flattening the curve on corona, squeezing the curve on climate.

6: A language in crisis

How key words, phrases and concepts are being bent out of shape by the coronavirus, shaping how we think about what follows.

7: Cultures of decision-making, in Sweden and beyond

Sweden’s ‘Middle Way’ approach to the coronavirus, democracy as a political system for people who are not sure that they are right, and the role of trust, expertise and citizenship, as compared with other Nordics, Taiwan and China.

8: An A/B test on our way of life

The lumpiness of history, how events change the world, World A versus World B, and six questions to prompt reflections about what the coronavirus might mean.

9: The restoration

The coronavirus immediate creates a restored and regenerative environment, and the Slowdown starts to create new habits.

10: Another Green World

Slow cities, flightshame, fast and slow layers, energy use maps the permanent weekend, the acceptance of essential infrastructures and Universal Basic Services, and is the coronavirus forcing us to sketch new forms of governance?

11: Post-traumatic urbanism and radical indigenism

How cities post-coronavirus can benefit from the distributed patterns of post-traumatic urbanism meeting radical indigenism, Wakanda meeting Aalto, and ‘Lo-TEK’ nature-based technologies meeting contemporary infrastructures.

12: Between the roots and the stars

Another green world lying just beneath ours; what our response to the coronavirus can learn from the night sky after Katrina, a 6000 year-old eel machine in Victoria, and a spruce tree in Sweden.

Batch two of the Slowdown Papers, late-April 2020. Start here:

13: From Lockdown to Slowdown

“Chair-room-house-environment-city plan”; how the coronavirus could change the strategy for our patterns of distribution of workplaces and work, from home to town to countryside to nation.

The Slowdown Papers are a series of observations, reflections and loose extrapolations, based on the early impact of the Coronavirus COVID–19 pandemic, particularly on the way we make decisions about cities, systems, infrastructures, cultures, and technologies.

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Dan Hill

Dan Hill

Designer, urbanist, etc. Director of Melbourne School of Design. Previously, Swedish gov, Arup, UCL IIPP, Fabrica, Helsinki Design Lab, BBC etc

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