Inversions

[Ruderal Forest in the former City of Pripyat, abandoned after the Chernobyl incident, by Rusocer]

Stewart Brand spoke in Portland this past Wednesday, providing an outline of the thinking behind his latest work.  The lecture was as entertaining as it was jarring, which according to Brand, is expected given the major shift in his views on green infrastructure.

Coincidentally, I’m just finishing Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel: Freedom.  I say coincidentally because as I passed through the anti-Brand activists congregated in front of the entrance to Reed College’s lecture hall and while watching Brand’s lecture with the charged commentary that followed it, I couldn’t avoid a pressing inundation of uncanny parallels to passages in Franzen’s novel.  I kept thinking of the character of Walter Berglund – a somewhat rigid conservationist and environmental lawyer who mysteriously ends up on the side of West Virginia’s corporate coal companies.  Walter finds himself enabling mountaintop removal mining of huge swaths of Appalachia as part of his pragmatic and longer term vision to save a species of migratory warblers, via state of the art post – mining reclamation).  A total contradiction, yet resolved in the character’s mind due to his ability to envision his own long now.

[The self-healing salt walls of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in Carlsbad New Mexico.  The subterranean chambers offer a geology custom fit for nuclear waste storage: “The virtues of the Salado (salt) formation are legion: The salt emits almost none of its own radiation, and a half-mile deep in the earth, the deposit is well-isolated, but soft and easy to mine. Also, the salt is “plastic,” moving a few inches per year, creeping into WIPP’s caverns of nuclear waste to eventually seal them. Once the salt walls close in around the barrels and drums, fractures and openings will shut, leaving no pathway for water or waste to get in or out (a process known as Room Closure).”  Source. This obviously warrants its own post.]

Brand enthusiastically presented slides of vanguard eco-infrastructure, including advances in geoengineering, animations of fusion technology set to horrendous soundtracks, the latest small-scale nuclear energy products manufactured by Bechtel and similar corporations, recycling programs or harvesting nuclear warheads for sustainable energy, why Chernobyl should be a national park, and schemes for open-source genetic engineering which can be performed in one’s own garage.  These narratives made this ‘eco-pragmatist’ manifesto read a lot like fiction.  Brand self describes himself as consistently ‘swayed by facts’, thus his views are far from static.  He has no choice but to change as ‘facts’ change, and Brand has been in the business of branding ideas for quite some time.

Likewise, Franzen’s completely made up world of imperfect characters and situations compromised by politics and corporate agendas reads more as ingrained fact of contemporary life (note: the novelist has confessed to his own obsession with migratory birds, which is mirrored in the character of Walter).  Who narrates the eco-conundrum better?   The two authors have inadvertently laid claim to the other’s genre.

One of the more memorable moments of Stewart’s lecture was his support and enthusiasm for dense cities.  He claimed that slum dwellers (4 out 5 people on earth) are constructing far more city and urbanized space than anyone else (far more than formally trained designers), and they are doing this in a totally do-it-yourself, iterative fashion.  Not a totally new idea by any means, but it was how he illustrated this point through a video clip of a market in Bangkok’s train slums that read like a staged encounter too intricately choreographed to be true – a market that instantly makes and unmakes itself in the space of the active rail line, flawlessly responding to the recurrent inundations of passing trains:

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