Revisiting & Rethinking Soleri’s Map of Despair

One of the lingering thoughts from my reading of Soleri’s Magnum Opus City in the Image of Man was the Map of Despair. Its an idea put forward by environmentalists who lament the imposition of a grid like structure over natural systems in so called developed areas. Actually what I interpret Soleri as referring to is the aesthetic and sensory impact of over-development.

The idea of over-development relates to the current situation of humanity on many levels and layers of reality perception. For example it can range from bloated military and health care costs to elevated levels of obesity in affluent nations. It also can be evident in the way everything has been mapped out and fenced off with the modern grid.

The implication in the map drawing done by Soleri above was that the result of all of this very rapid modernization would be very dismal leading to the name Map of Despair. We would have the material goodies, but at what price. This is especially evident with the embrace of the American model of development which focused on using the land and resources as if they were an infinite resource.

Developing and then offering this particular model of development as a solution not just for the USA, but for humanity was particularly irresponsible use of its tremendous influence in the world. The slow collapse of the USSR led many to believe that there was no real alternative to rampant consumerism and sprawl associated with the American Dream and the American development model was the way for success. It was true that for a time with the Europeans embracing sustainability to a much greater degree than the US, that the possibility emerged that they could actually compete with the US for global leadership in innovation within the capitalist system. However just as the point of a possible take off of this alternative development model (the European Dream), the European economy got hit hard by a combination of its own financial mismanagement of an increasingly bloated welfare state that was financed on rosy economic growth assumptions that had not materialized and the encroaching American financial models that led to the 2007/8 Global Financial Crisis in the first place.

Europe has historically been constrained by its much smaller land mass and larger population density. The US had no such constraints and thus the modern suburbanization phenomena could proceed here relatively unrestrained by physical as well as political and social limitations. Hence the Map of Despair sought to express the concern that without political limitations, the human desire for more and bigger things would only be stopped by the shortage of the resources to make the goods themselves. Thomas Malthus – the 17th century English clergyman was one of the first philosophers or thinkers in Western civilization that postulated this in the age of modernization. This later became known within the environmental movement as Malthusian thinking and was the intellectual foundation for many assumptions centering around warnings of the long term ecological and social implications of excessive economic policies that cater to rampant consumerism and materialism.

Forty years after Soleri coined the term Map of Despair, we can see that obviously he had touched on a nerve that was part of a larger segment of the radical environmentalist movement called deep ecology. Here “eco-fundis” or radical environmentalists were actually talking about decommissioning large sections of agricultural land in the great plains of the US and converting them into wilderness areas that would be untouched by human hands.

While much of the conservationist movement early on fixated on unrealistic notions of preserving natural areas by creating huge parks from what is currently private land, progressive cities such as Portland OR and Boulder CO,  did serve as social science experiments putting forward Urban Growth Boundaries that were designed to limit suburban sprawl to varying degrees of success. Also in this process of consider the radical, deep ecology preservationists, the Nature Conservancy was able to grow into the one of the most powerful and influential US based environmental groups by successfully raising money to buy large tracts of land as a practical manifestation of the conservation or preservationist movement.

Where Soleri and preservationists got the map wrong is in misunderstanding the dynamics of development and world geography. First most of the damage is being done in non-affluent regions where the natural systems are actually more vulnerable to predatory corporate development practices. Second is that nature’s resilience in this era is tied to human habitats and uses of the land, so we can’t just cordon ourselves off from the natural – we are a part of its future, as much as it is a part of ours .

What I want to introduce at this point is this idea that with globalization the dynamics of resource extraction have shifted. The foundation for this began with Teddy Roosevelt and his establishment of two key agencies in the US government the US Park Service and the US Forest Service and the resulting battle between preservationists and stewards. As wealth became concentrated in affluent nations, the newly modern affluent ruling classes could afford to preserve more lands and resources in their home lands/regions to ensure they remained pristine – as we now see in the national and state parks. Other lands were designed for a combination of land management balancing human extraction needs with a land stewardship ethic such as the US Forest Service. Still others like the BLM were more focused on balancing the needs of various development groups such as ranchers, foresters and miners.

This was the beginning of feel good environmentalism which included (1: the preservation of lands that risked being soiled by destructive modern development practices and/or (2: the organization of events on Earth Day for example involving the clean up and reclamation of areas already impacted.  While such modern natural resource management practices had an obvious PR angle they also in some cases had a national security component as well. An example of this includes exporting polluting industries to marginalized provincial regions of the world that do not have fully developed modern standards and practices for pollution control, public safety and natural resources managements, while preserving your nation’s human and natural resource stock for future use when cleaner technologies come about. Thus neoliberalism came into being just as scores of newly minted nations were given their first taste of freedom in the post-colonial world.

What needs to be clarified is that globalization is not a bad thing if we agree on the key elements of the modern experiment that have the potential to authentically benefit all of humanity: (1: that modern technology when applied appropriately can lead to real improvements in quality of life (2; global linkages are necessary to enable the needed collaboration and sharing for realizing the potential of this experiment in not just the areas of technology and commerce but culture as well (3; some sort of global regime must emerge to properly govern the emerging global society and properly manage resources to ensure all the world’s people are taken care of and to do without diminishing our long-term ability to sustain a minimal level of prosperity for all the world’s humans and finally (4; includes the consideration of natural systems and other living beings besides humans as having rights to exist and be considered as actors along with humans in the emerging and evolving planetary reality of Earth.

As globalization under neoliberalism evolved and corporations gained power over emerging nation states, the liberal democratic consensus always weak become eroded to an incremental greater extent. Clever ways were devised to leap frog the rule of law because as core areas of elite power in the globalization process shifted away from local physical resources and towards global sources. What emerged was the beginning of a unprecedented cleavage in global wealth creation with the income spread between rich and poor reaching outlandish and unsustainable levels.

The emergence of a new class of financial and legal professionals was necessary to ensure that the rule of law could be modified to sustain this. Their directives would apply in development policies that were beneficial to ensure continued domination of by developed regions over the undeveloped ones.

Thus the dynamics had to shift so that the map of despair to a large degree was averted in the developed world where large transfers of capital were allowed to flow into the preservation of land and natural resources. At the same time, the global financial system was tweaked. Land and resources in the so called marginalized, developing world was significantly undervalued. Investors who had previously made a killing speculating on land and resources in their home countries, could now do the same in distant lands. This was enabled by the neoliberal quasi-government entities like WTO, GATT, the World Bank and the IMF that created the financial and regulatory superstructure for outsourcing, expanding and exporting national business into an international and fully globalized economy. The national capitalist class’ innovative ways of getting people to sacrifice their own self-interest and working to further enrich the vested interests of the world’s super-rich could now be applied at an unprecedented global scale.

In reality this is more about the aggregation of capital formation around influential early adopter social networks meshing with more established ones (and the resulting symbiosis) than it is about political boundaries and national identity. An example of this trend has been to see that as noted by many media publications and most recently The Atlantic – all the world’s trendiest (30) cities are also the ones where the world’s richest people live. What really matters is that those who control the flow of the world’s capital continue to have their way. Now in my view I am not sure I am totally against this meshing of the elitism of the ruling classes of the world’s civilizations with the innovative spirit of highly educated and enterprising professional and creative people as it has been the way of civilization’s developing since before we call it such. However I am concerned about the nature in which they are leading the bulk of civilization on a path that appears to risk not only all of humanity, but many others forms of life that coexist on the planet with us.

To see the real Map of Despair you need to go to a non-affluent region of the world to see levels of pollution and suffering that never gripped Europe or North America even in their worst moments in the short history of the modern experiment. Yes the Great Depression was a difficult time for the US but imagine just for a moment that for much of the world that level of poverty and suffering is the permanent reality of the society in which they live. The problem is that things are operating on a global level and in the totality of this reality, the sustainability alarm bells are ringing not in terms of localized pollution and chemical spills that create images of sick and degraded environments, but rather in the slow moving changes that the large global scale domination of the natural world by humans has produced. And the reality is that these changes are not something that a feel good environmentalist photo op campaign will easily reverse.

The Map of Despair I see in my mind is not one that is aesthetically driven by a sense of a Foucaultian, Matrix like grid of command and control apparatuses overcoming us as a monolithic commercial culture that seeks to commodify all things – with the result being the increasingly soulless technologically and money-driven world we live in. The real challenge I see rather is reversing the biosphere wide changes we have initiated through our thoughtless and greed driven actions to control more and more of nature for the sake of controlling more and more wealth in the global economy.

What I am getting at is that for much of the history of the environmental movement we focused not on the substantive – the holistic and global integrity of environmental systems at the biospheric level – but rather on images of pollution and degradation.

Even as the environmental community focuses like a laser beam on Global Climate Change they miss the mark in not seeing and avoiding the reality that this problem is a signal that something is fundamentally wrong with our civilization. Global Climate Change does not exist in isolation its complemented by other problems like species extinction, which is driven by humanity’s global hogging of the total planetary capacity to produce biomass for life. No one is there to say no you can’t, for it is that what increasingly drives the economy is our addictions to power, sex, drugs and technology. But the reality inevitably is that the addict cannot be trusted to guide and manage technologies we have amassed in the modern experiment that are capable of altering the planetary balance of power in unimaginable ways just a few short years ago.

Thus we are unable to confront the two major issues of the day: Global Climate Change and Species Extinction Rates. Its possible that these two issues by themselves may dwarf all the concerns that take up most of the mainstream society’s energy and time as they may usher in fundamental changes in wealth climate and overall ecosystem health that may staggering consequences on our ability to produce what we need not just to prosper as a species but survive a unprecedented global mess of biblical proportions that is at its core of our own making.


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