No More Business As Usual


Provisional Cities installation by R. Tyszczuk – 'Micro-biospheres' – Royal Geographical Society, June 2018; photo: G. Ashurst

This is a summary of a talk I gave to the Architecture Climate Action Network (ACAN) ‘No More Business as Usual’ Assembly on 20 May 2020. The other speakers were architect and theorist, Michael Pawlyn and economist and entrepreneur, Gunter Pauli.

ACAN’s provocation was as follows: ‘We cannot return to business-as-usual. So how do we equip ourselves for change towards an equitable and sustainable future?’

For my talk I drew on some of my previous writings on architecture, culture and climate change and current reflections during lockdown.

Home Planet– I have been thinking about living on this home planet, magnified in intensity from my protective bubble – I may as well be in space– and wanted to start by saying – when we get back 'down to Earth' we will not return to ‘business as usual'. In times of uncertainty – one thing is certain – that things will change. I am interested in the potential of critical storytelling about living with uncertainty– & thus of imagining the future otherwise. And this calls attention to the ways in which – in conditions of ‘climate emergency’– cultural/social imaginaries are being shaped by, and are shaping, the sense of the world as no longer a stable entity. Stories are ways of coping with this unsettlement. This is therefore about the need for plural stories, for acknowledging many possible worlds, and for inviting multiple perspectives of how to live in the future in more just and equitable ways. Such stories, or what I have called collective scenarios, offer the potential to rethink life on Earth in terms of planetary co-existence – vulnerable humans, future generations, other species & organisms, even viruses. This is also a challenge to rethink architecture’s responses and responsibilities, when faced with the spectre of an uninhabitable Earth, that goes beyond the usual mitigation and adaptation strategies, responding to shifting targets, risk assessments and protocols. If the world as we know it is ending, architecture practice as we know it is changing too. Provisional Cities

What on Earth? – We live on a perilously disturbed planet. Human societies have destabilized Earth systems through an acceleration of fossil-fuelled activities and an insatiable demand for resources. The 21st century is again a time full of fearful stories of the sky falling and the world ending. I have characterised the Anthropocene as the pre-eminent, self-made cautionary tale – a troubling story told to try to make sense of the calamity-ridden world we find ourselves in. If that is the case, it is also a story we would do well to heed. And yet in spite of warnings, and bad portents, it is a story we seem to have been intent on ending badly, with little sign of concerted global emissions reductions or a big enough change in attitudes or practices. Is it still possible to change the ending? Anthropocenophobia

Earth Rights – There is a widespread sense that this is a time of political and social reckoning for a planet of cities in planetary crisis. Yet at the same time that the scale of human impacts – of gargantuan agency capable of changing planetary systems – is made obvious – human agency – and with it, capacity for action – is diminished. I have called this a crisis of agency. Crisis does not equal transformation. An agency of transformation, how things could be otherwise, is about inhabiting the politics of crisis and seeking to transform it. It is also about the potential for transforming with it. Crisis of Agency

Spaceship Earth – One of the most potent ideas in 20th century environmentalism was the notion that humanity inhabits ‘Spaceship Earth’ – the redefinition of the home planet as a vehicle journeying in space with precious life support systems needing maintenance. This has anticipated and continues to inspire and inform ideas of circular economies, planetary boundaries, and system transformations. This abstract vision of a precarious Earth however, has only bolstered our sense of control. It problematically conjures up an image of the best tech gizmos capable of supplying all daily needs, a genius dashboard for monitoring systems, and at same time emphasizes the constraints of a limited carrying capacity, implying disturbing lifeboat ethics. We are definitely not all in the same boat. Spaceship Earth thinking helped to establish the planet as a temporary biospheric environment – or Biosphere 1 – that could be both expertly managed and improved, and it also opened up the prospect of leaving Earth— and its troubles— behind altogether. The hubris and exceptionalism in, for example, talk of ‘Apollo-like endeavors’ continues whether discussing systems change, planetary-scale engineering, or off-Earth asteroid mining. In other words its worth noticing here the worrying persistence of the kind of thinking that got us into trouble in the first place. An Energy Account for Spaceship Earth

Learning with Covid-19 – Life in the time of Covid-19, has also been about reflecting on responses and responsibilities and, indeed, on how to cope with emergency. Among the list of things that the pandemic has revealed in lockdown are: society’s lack of preparedness and precautionary action in spite of warnings; the fragility of systems/services; how readily inequalities and vulnerabilities are exposed, especially for those ‘without refuge’ and how this is about entanglements – or ecological, global, economic interdependencies; that the virus isn’t democratic; and the ever present potential for escalating, cascading, interlinked crises. No society is in a position to control the virus just as it is impossible to expect us to be capable of climate control. But also, that in enduring, coping, living with this pandemic uncertainty - relationships matter. For it has surfaced the importance of community and social infrastructures; it has focused us on the importance of provisioning, reproductive economies, practices of mutual aid and protecting lives at risk; it has thus revived care, hospitality, cooperation, generosity and humility as guiding principles of inhabiting the Earth. There is no knowing what the future holds. But perhaps what we can do immediately is pay attention to our own responses to change and relations with others and practice modes of good citizenship. Going forward, a provisional, porous architecture still has the capacity – or convening power – to be a supportive structure, an infrastructure that extends to the ecological, material, political, ethical, social, cultural and economic – and the values therein – it can be the space or the home from where we work out what next. Thermostat

What if? – I am wary of either techno-utopianism – we can fix this and fast ! or pandemic utopianism- we are transformed! & will emerge post-virus blinking in the sun as a progressive society! Instead change will have to be practiced. This involves modes of societal learning and unlearning worked out in civic rehearsal and improvisation. Indeed, collective scenarios are to be configured around the question what if? Paying attention to scenarios as infrastructures of collaborative and indeed interactive citizenship – or Infrastructures of care– might help find ways of not leaving the future to take care of itself and offer insights into shared practices of taking care of the future. It is not about putting things off until tomorrow or even worrying about future-proofing ­– rehearsal in conditions where there is no obvious script for action is about strengthening the imagination, the relationships and commitments that will enable us to live with uncertainty and construct and support the futures we need now. Scenarios of Interactive Citizenship