They’s change a-comin’. I don’ know what. Maybe we won’t live to see her. But she’s a-comin’. They’s a res’less feelin’. Fella can’t figger nothin’ out, he’s so nervous.
— John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath 1
We live on a designed planet. But it’s a damaged planet. Just ask António Guterres, secretary-general of the United Nations, who opened a recent meeting of the General Assembly with a “warning for planet Earth.” Referring to the dismal array of crises we currently face (climate, biodiversity, income inequity, threats to democracy, the rights of women and girls across the planet…), he said: “Our world is in big trouble. … Our planet is burning. … We don’t have the beginnings of a global architecture to deal with any of this.” 2
Guterres is using the word architecture metaphorically — but let’s take it literally. Which raises some questions. Number one: Can we actually design our way out of any of these blasted crises? In a review-essay in this journal, Places editor Nancy Levinson sums up one challenge (so far unmet): Can we imagine the design professions making “a renewed commitment to the project management of the nation” by means of an activist agenda that directly engages — and counters — the market-driven dynamics that have long delimited the agendas of even the most ambitious architects and landscape architects? Question two: To what degree can the planetary design professions, design culture, even acknowledge what Levinson calls “the fundamental realignments” that “this crisis demands?” Realignments, that is, between our public and governmental institutions, vast private-sector systems of finance and production, and the society we once called civil. 3
My third question: Is thinking in terms of solutions to the problems of hyper-capitalism even possible, or is capitalism the kind of structural problem that can never be “solved?” In a remarkable essay in this journal, Rob Holmes argues that “solutionism” — “the recurring temptation to see landscape design through the prism of known solutions,” and thus to ignore the more complex, wicked problems for which solutions do not yet exist — is an intellectual pathology that sets designers up for failure. 4 Is it even possible to achieve systemic change, or fundamental realignments? Or do we settle for making adjustments to the system? 5 And who is this we anyway? For whom do I speak when I roll out these questions? Is not the use of all such collective pronouns deeply problematic? So many thinkers and activists are confronting these crises, and yet … the dog barks, and the caravan moves on. 6
Both authors want capitalism gone by lunch time; so we are in good company.
So, this is going to be an essay about capitalism and its discontents. Two books are under review, one linking capitalism with the technological despotism of the internet, the other linking this already thoroughly debunked political and economic system with the scientific despoliation of the earth. While each book has different stories to tell, the authors of both want capitalism gone by lunch time (so we are in good company), and they advance compelling arguments about why it must go. At the same time neither book gives much guidance as to how a structural transformation of society might be achieved. Then again, these are not solutionist books. The authors are less interested in offering answers than in framing problems, and this they both do with great success. Both books analyze capitalism and its effects: the normalization of property as power; the sale and exploitation of labor; the exclusion of the global south from the circuits of wealth and well-being; the use of violence to maintain control; the laws, written and unwritten, that maintain the status quo.
In A Botany of Violence, Pierre Bélanger, Ghazal Jafari, and Pablo Escudero investigate the relationship between capitalism and colonialism. In Scorched Earth: Beyond the Digital Age to a Post-Capitalist World, Jonathan Crary lays bare the connections between market capitalism and what he calls “the internet complex.” Both books send a shiver up your spine. Each comes to that bitter conclusion arrived at so long ago by political writers as diverse as Hannah Arendt and Raymond Williams, that capitalism produces the very conditions it purports to mitigate; it has not been able to rise above its foundations in property ownership, the profit motive, and the commodification of labor, and thus cannot bring about social justice. 7 These new books also beg the nagging question as to whether cancelling capitalism, if that were possible, would truly remove or resolve its inequities.
Scorched Earth surveys the demolition of the planetary lifeworld by the workings of a corporate-digital supersystem.
In 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, Jonathan Crary argued that corporations deploy time and tempo (its speed; its absence) in order to control employees; Crary describes this as “a crucial part of the remaking of the subject,” an assault against which “sleep is the only remaining barrier, the only enduring ‘natural condition’ that capitalism cannot eliminate.” 8 With Scorched Earth, the distinguished cultural critic continues his vivisection of capitalism; the result is a brilliant, searing critique of the growing dominance of the internet, and especially social media, over all aspects of private and civic life. “If there is to be a livable and shared future on our planet,” he writes in the opening sentence, “it will be a future offline, uncoupled from the world-destroying systems and operations of 24/7 capitalism.” The commercialized internet, “structurally interwoven” with capitalism, now dominates and dictates human relations:
The digital tools and services used by people everywhere are subordinated to the power of transnational corporations, intelligence agencies, criminal cartels, and a sociopathic billionaire elite. For the majority of the earth’s population on whom it has been imposed, the internet complex is the implacable engine of addiction, loneliness, false hopes, cruelty, psychosis, indebtedness, squandered life, the corrosion of memory, and social disintegration. All of its touted benefits are rendered irrelevant or secondary by its injurious and sociocidal impacts. 9
Scorched Earth then proceeds to survey the demolition of the planetary lifeworld by the workings of a transnational corporate-digital supersystem irreconcilable with “a habitable earth.” The author details the myriad ways in which the internet is devastating communities everywhere, stripping them of carefully nurtured frameworks of mutual support, hollowing out communal and cooperative networks. Perhaps most obviously, the ubiquitous platforms of social media (where, as Crary reminds us, bots “far outnumber actual people” 10) have replaced social relations with algorithmically manipulated simulacra. (Echoes of Jean Baudrillard’s thesis that in end-stage modernity there are only copies, only simulacra.)
Certainly the internet has failed to deliver the techno-heaven of freedom and opportunity that early proponents once promised. It is not democratic, it is not distributive, and it is definitely not bottom-up, decentralizing, or anti-hierarchical. Rather, with a persuasive mix of flinty resolve and erudite rage, Crary argues that the internet ensures that none of these things can come to be. Although often linked to identity politics, popular insurgencies, and climate marches, the internet actually “close[s] off even the tentative emergence of sustained anti-systemic organizing and action.” Crary hits hard:
[I]t should be remembered that broad-based radical movements and far larger mass mobilizations were achieved in the 1960s and early ’70s without any fetishizing of the material means used for organizing. Accounts of the internet as an egalitarian, horizontal field of “public spheres” have deleted any class-based struggle at a historical moment when class antagonisms are as acute as ever. Indeed, the internet complex has never been deployed with even minor success in furthering an anti-capitalist or anti-war agenda. 11
The critique of the internet expands into an equally sharp critique of technoscience.
In the latter part of the book, the critique of the internet complex expands into an equally sharp critique of technoscience and its “disastrous inseparability” from capitalism. Building upon the work of leading theorists of science and culture, including Alfred North Whitehead, Jürgen Habermas, and Jean-François Lyotard, Crary challenges the popular shibboleth that Western scientific research is disinterested or benign, and that it can be depended upon “to deliver us from the climate crisis.” Not only will science not save us; “its own calamitous accomplishments,” the author writes, have led instead to the “unravelling of the earth system.” Here he hits equally hard:
Scientists themselves, not just corporate executives, bear direct responsibility for the terminal wounding of living systems by plastics, herbicides, pesticides, and petrochemical fertilizers … These compounds have been produced for no other purpose than the facilitating of manufacturing and technical processes, including military applications, and for enhancing, in thousands of ways, the unnecessary “conveniences” of daily life and commerce. 12
Not all the blows land with equal accuracy. Today, Crary, writes, it is “heresy” for Western science “to affirm that the world is animate and that all livings things are interconnected and interdependent.” 13 This is not the case. Plenty of scientists, from the physicist Ilya Prigogine to ecologist James J. Kay, have made the study of open, connected, and self-organizing systems their life’s work. 14 At the same time, the entry into Western science of Indigenous knowledge systems has deeply affected the kinds of research being done, as wells as the outcomes of that research. 15 And is technoscience inescapably the evil twin of capitalism? Or can it be understood more generously, in Bruno Latour’s terms, as a “seamless web” that connects scientists and engineers to social practices that create problematic new “culture-nature hybrids” and complicate the very separation of science and society?
And too, is the internet always and everywhere soul-destroying? Who is the we for whom Crary is speaking? The book’s thesis is global; yet some identities seem to have gone missing. What about African Americans who use Black Twitter to create new identities and free themselves from the tyranny of normative work and play? What about dissident voices from the Arab world, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, South Korea, Nigeria, India? What about the widespread use of Facebook by Indigenous peoples around the world? In the margins of my copy of the book, I wrote, in pencil: “A global conspiracy theory, but essentially a book about Planet America.”
Nevertheless, it’s hard not to agree with Crary about the harmful impact of techno-modernist science on the entanglement of natural and social assemblies of living things. We’re talking here about large-scale operations of epistemological management and control, operations that use the narrative conventions of democracy (freedom!) and science (progress!) to advance the protocols of globalized capital into every area of human existence. We’re talking here about “planet-wide militarization” in the service of resource extraction and commodity markets. We’re talking about “capitalism in its terminal, scorched-earth phase.” What’s needed, Crary insists, “in a time of emergency,” are “forms of radical refusal.” 16 (More later, on the possibilities of such refusal.)
A Botany of Violence is a gripping investigation of rapacious environmental imperialism.
A Botany of Violence is a gripping, multimodal investigation of six centuries of rapacious environmental imperialism that slaughtered millions and laid vast territories to waste. Bélanger, Jafari, and Escudero trace, in painstaking detail, the history of the cinchona plant, a member of the Rubiaceae family, the storied “fever tree” that originated on the eastern slopes of the Andes and whose bark is used to produce the anti-malarial drug quinine. Much of this history is told through carefully selected images, and the 544-page volume can be read as an illustrated timeline that starts from Christopher Columbus’s 1492 landfall in what is today called the Bahamas and continues right up to the contemporary geopolitical apparatus that sustains the colonial project. At the narrative center of this timeline is the cinchona, “stolen by the Spanish Jesuits in the 17th century, smuggled abroad by the British and Dutch during the 18th century, mapped by Humboldt in the 19th century, and patented by global pharma in the 20th century.” 17
The adoption of this format, a type of counter-mapping, allows the authors to gather hundreds of beautiful, nuanced, and sometimes violent illustrations — paintings, etchings, maps, town plans, scientific drawings and diagrams, enlargements of microscopic cells and pathogens, archival images of tropical plantations stretching across terraced hills bordered by rainforest, recent photographs of Indigenous protests and activists. The pictorial narrative that emerges underscores the degree to which colonization was driven by new horticultural technologies and by rising competition for knowledge, or what the authors call “naturalizing supremacy.”
The pictorial narrative underscores the degree to which colonization was driven by new horticultural technologies.
Some of the images are oblique, others blatant, and their cumulative impact feels almost visceral. Depictions of 16th-century plantation owners and slaves rub up against the 17th-century portrait of Louis XIV of France being presented to members of the Academy of Sciences. Panoramic scenes from Diego Rivera’s 1951 mural The Arrival of Cortés, showing native peoples being branded and enslaved, are followed by a photograph of an 18th-century “bag for Cinchona bark,” an artifact now in the collection of the London Science Museum. An 1878 photograph of the early pharmaceutical manufacturer Henry Wellcome, traveling on horseback through Peru, makes for a telling juxtaposition with a 1911 drawing from Harmsworth Popular Science, showing malarial mosquitoes at the Panama Canal, with the caption: “Can Science Colonize the Tropics?” Even the early 20th-century photographs of Dutch plantations in West Java, in which nattily dressed agronomists and landowners direct local laborers as they plant, graft, harvest, and sort the trees and their curative products, are wicked with shame.
Certain episodes are shown as crucial to the history of botanical extraction and exploitation. In 1570, the Spanish Crown sponsored court physician Francisco Hernández to travel to the new world to study and collect medicinal plants, an expedition that would involve, as the authors write, the “systematic exploration and appropriation of geographic, anthropological, and Indigenous knowledge.” 18 In 1640, a Spanish cardinal declared quinine to be a “miracle cure of malarial fevers.” 19 A century later, Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus named the plant Cinchona in honor of the Countess of Chinchón, the wife of a Spanish nobleman allegedly cured by the plant, and, in 1750, after two centuries of brutal exploitation of the Andean lands and peoples, Spain officially declared the bark of the cinchona tree to be a “natural resource of the empire,” and proclaimed the forests and lands of the Loja region, in southern Ecuador, to be an estanco real, or royal reserve. 20
After two centuries of brutal exploitation, Spain declared the bark of the cinchona tree to be a ‘natural resource of the empire.’
The relationship between the cinchona plant and the “planet-wide militarization” described in Scorched Earth is all too evident. Malaria, an infectious disease carried by mosquitoes, was a constant threat in many of the equatorial territories that were seized and colonized by European nations. Soldiers and statesmen were being cut down by the disease in imperial outposts from South America to sub-Saharan Africa, from India to Indonesia. For centuries, until the development of modern anti-malarial drugs, cinchona bark was the only known antidote, “the colonizer’s cure,” as the authors put it. 21 In the early 20th century, when the British Empire spanned almost one-quarter of the globe, the English physician Ronald Ross was awarded a Nobel Prize for research on malaria transmission in India. His acceptance speech is a distillation of the colonial mentality: “Malarial fever is important, not only because of the misery which it inflicts on mankind, but because of the serious opposition which it has always given to the march of civilization in the tropics. …There it strikes down not only the Indigenous barbaric population, but … the pioneers of civilization — the planter, the trader, the missionary, the soldier.” 22
Three elements distinguish this book from others that analyze ecology, power, and imperialism, such as Corey Ross’s recent Ecology and Power in the Age of Empire: Europe and the Transformation of the Tropical World. The first is the focus on one plant, which permits the authors to dig deep into the machinery of extraction; second is the deployment of multiple, diverse images as an evidential critique of colonial representation; and third is the courage to step outside the conventional (and self-imposed) limits of scholarship and express the anger and urgency that make their exposé so compelling. We are left in no doubt about the political allegiances of the authors — all are founding members of the design-research collective Open Systems, which is focused on “complex socioecological challenges and geopolitical conflicts” — or about their conviction that violent botanical extraction is getting worse, not better; in fact this new book expands upon the themes of their vertiginous essay, “No Design on Stolen Land,” which charged the design professions with abetting the normalization of “dehumanizing White supremacy.” 23
Indigenous feminism is a recurring theme, from the pre-contact apothecaries of Andean women to women’s leadership in contemporary ecological movements.
The last sections of A Botany of Violence, covering the 1990s to the present, are extraordinarily powerful — a final excoriation on the continuing rape of Amazonia in the name of pharmacological progress, on the pathologies of imperialism, on the hypocrisy and anti-Indigeneity of European and American conservation organizations, on the “weaponization of ‘environmental justice,’” 24 and on the oppression of Indigenous and Latinx women. Indigenous feminism is a recurring theme across the entire timeline, from the pre-contact apothecaries of Andean women; to the bloody mangling of women’s bodies by conquistadores; to the over-representation of Indigenous and Afro-Ecuadorean women in prisons and under-representation in public governance; to women’s leadership in contemporary anti-statist and ecological movements. The authors quote the Aymaran activist Adriana Guzmán, a founder of the Bolivia-based organization Communitarian Feminists: “It has been important to break with the linear logic of colonial time that argues about passing from the pre-modern to the modern, to the post-modern, from the uncivilized to the civilized, that talks about progress, development, evolution, from the un-evolved to the evolved.” 25
European armies, Caribbean slave traders, South American colonies, global diseases, industrial-scale production of Western medicines from equatorial rainforests: this global accumulation of circulating profit and cultural loss gets right under your fingernails every day. Inevitably, the client-centric design professions are complicit in its enveloping operations. Here’s an example, from my own experience. A great deal of territorial plundering has taken place in that cartographic band of extraordinary organic vitality latitudinally subtended by the 20th parallels north and south, known in the European imagination as the Tropics. Settler-colonists sought out tropical plants as they swept around the world with their Wardian cases and their chamois-leather seed-bags in the benighted pursuit of horticultural democratization. Starting in the 19th century, tropical and subtropical plants were imported to Aotearoa New Zealand, and in the late 20th century, when I was designing private gardens in suburban Auckland, it was fashionable to feature subtropical species — flowering bromeliads, spikey cycads, aroids, palms, agaves.
Settler-colonists sought out tropical plants as they swept around the world with their chamois-leather seed-bags in the benighted pursuit of horticultural democratization.
Oh how naïve we were! In retrospect, these residential gardens were a self-conscious performance of “Pacific-ness” — a misplaced assertion of our antipodean repudiation of British settler-colonial design formulae, all those Edwardian rose gardens and fussy parterres. Today it’s painfully clear that our imported plants were simply a different manifestation of Euro-American taste cultures and, more significantly, of the economic advantages they embodied. For surely we were appropriating the intellectual property of the Indigenous peoples who had once lived among these plants in their localities of origin. And I do mean IP: ethnopharmacologists have argued convincingly that the protection of Indigenous knowledge extends to the value of plants as medicinal sources. Alas, my use of subtropical species to proclaim my localism, cultural identity, and postcolonialism in Auckland was a small episode of the very thing that Bélanger, Jafari, and Escudero are decrying. The sting in the tail is that I obtained mature specimens — dragon trees, Butia palms, Cycas revoluta — not directly from the catchments of Morocco, Goiás, and Taiwan but second-hand from the gardens planted by the early settler-colonizers of a city named for the British Governor-General of India.
Here I return to my initial questions. Crary, Bélanger, Jafari, Escudero: all are committed futurists. At one point Crary argues that it is largely our anxious fears of a predetermined future that prevent us from “realizing how free we are, in fact, to refuse the mandates of empire and adopt alternate ways of living.” 26 But … how do we do this? How do we get rid of the internet complex and its totalizing operations? Crary spends a lot of bookspace explaining the why. He is less expansive on the how. He concedes it will be “wrenching” to imagine, to reclaim, life without the internet complex, without capital accumulation; but that it is possible:
A crucial layer of the struggle for an equitable society in the years ahead is the creation of social and personal arrangements that abandon the dominance of the market and money over our lives together. This means rejecting our digital isolation, reclaiming time as lived time, rediscovering collective needs, and resisting mounting levels of barbarism, including the cruelty and hatred that emanate from online. Equally important is the task of humbly reconnecting with what remains of a world filled with other species and forms of life. There are innumerable ways in which this may occur and, although unheralded, groups and communities in all parts of the planet are moving ahead with some of these restorative endeavors. 27
But how do we do this? How do we get rid of the internet complex and its totalizing operations?
Later in the book, the prescription is more grounded. “The city of our damaged present,” Crary writes, “has a future only if it is imagined as a field determined by our collaboration with other species, with non-human life, and with a post-capitalist rebuilding of biodiversity.” 28 (Italics mine.) Ultimately, any turn away from the dictates of capital and empire will require the creative deployment of local and regional communities in response to human and environmental needs. These are Crary’s solutionist solutions: small-scale community governance; informal neighborhood and workplace assemblages; face-to-face encounters with other human beings. This is, I have to say, a not unfamiliar credo, one with which many readers of this journal will agree. I agree too, as do most city councils. Yet I don’t quite see how it dissolves the furiously intentional, macro-funded, endlessly cumulative, deeply embedded, internet-capital complex. And yet again … if you go to the website of the UK’s Socialist Worker Party, you will read: “The problems in society come from a system, capitalism, that prioritizes profit above all else. We think the solution is a revolution, where the majority of people take control of society and run it from the bottom up without the billionaires, bosses and landlords.” 29
Take control of society. In the district where I live, all — and I mean all — the Indigenous humans communicate via Facebook. Indignantly, I refuse to join Facebook for the compelling reasons Crary works through. I am a Crary-ite in this regard. Trouble is, as a result I am not participating fully in my community. I’ve shut myself out; marginalized myself from activities in which I wish to participate. Purity before solidarity? As an Indigene interested only in kanohi i te kanohi (face to face) communication, I eventually find out what’s going on, but I miss out on many meetings, councils, and working sessions. Conversely, I do not witness the fruitless despair, the online violence, the generational anger of the continually colonized. While I identify as Māori, and share the aspirations of my people, I do not and cannot share the victimhood; I was brought up as a European in a land conquered initially by the British militia and now by the internet complex.
A decade ago, in the mists of 2012, the late English political-cultural theorist Mark Fisher made the case that we need to have faith that liberation can happen. “We have to believe,” he wrote, “that the currently collapsing neoliberal reality system is not the only possible modernity; that, on the contrary, it is a cybergothic form of barbarism, which uses the latest technology to reinforce the power of the oldest elites.” 30 Fisher asks the inevitable question: What forms might a post-capitalist configuration take? In Scorched Earth, Crary contends that that to bring about a better future there must be “an active prefiguration of new communities and formations capable of egalitarian self-governance, shared ownership, and caring for their weakest members.” 31 To prefigure is to bring into current reality a condition you can only imagine or project. To do this requires an intervention. And interventions are, in fact, happening all the time.
Here’s one presented by Bélanger, Jafari, and Escudero towards the end of A Botany of Violence. In a series of photographs taken in Imbabura, a province in northern Ecuador, we see various blockades, physical barriers put in place by members of the Kichwa and Waorani Nations with the goal of blocking the passage of vehicles onto their lands during the height of the Covid pandemic. Some of the barriers consist simply of a heavy log laid across a roadway, but they are enough to stop cars carrying Ecuadorean governmental and military personnel. I think the authors understand this kind of action as a form of resistance — non-violent but also non-passive — that points to a larger response, a future of Indigenous anticolonial activism. But is it big enough?
In America it took the four-year Civil War (still the deadliest in U.S. history) to vanquish the slave-holding South; and even then racism and White supremacy have persisted to this very minute. It took epochal floods and fires for the people of Euro-America (and, finally, Australia) to concede that climate change was a problem needing attention; and even now the attention is insufficient. To counter the planetary effects of internet capitalism and ecological exploitation, surely something proportionally huge will be required. Perhaps the internet could be turned against its current purposes and used to coordinate the inhabitants of earth in one colossal act of refusal? Used and then, like the revolver in a film noir, tossed aside? Perhaps this refusal could take the form of a financial blockade in which every investor in the world divests their shares in fossil fuel extraction, transportation, refinement, and distribution? And while I am dreaming, or prefiguring: perhaps architects, landscape architects and urban planners can help to create the world without carbon, without colonies, without capital?
Meanwhile the dog still barks, and the caravan moves on.