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Saturday, January 16, 2021

Common Cause: What is an undisturbed city today, and how climate chaos affects it

The pandemic has brought public life to an unprecedented standstill. A writer reimagines and re-examines form and functionality in the cities which nurture us

Written by Rajni Bakshi | New Delhi | Updated: November 23, 2020 3:50:48 pm
Public life, as we knew it, has come to an unprecedented standstill. (Illustration: Suvajit Dey)

About a hundred years ago, Rainer Maria Rilke wrote a poem about people living in “undisturbed cities” being besieged by an enemy that waits silently outside and overcomes you without breaking down walls.

Rilke, a Bohemian-Austrian poet and novelist, was making deep mystical allusions through this poem. Even if the “undisturbed city” is a metaphor for the intangible inner quest – it also triggers reflections of the imbalance between masculine and feminine energies. Could “degrowth” rectify this potentially fatal imbalance?

“Undisturbed” can refer to the illusion that whatever comfort you now enjoy will continue. “Undisturbed” means being unaware or blind to what the city is neglecting.

Some of what has been neglected for decades is obvious – urban squalor, inhuman living conditions for the poor, grotesque disparities of income and even in the most basic resource of all – water. But, you might ask, haven’t countless inquiry commissions and consultants had a go at each one of these problems? Yes, but no truly scalable solutions have emerged. So, in our day-to-day life, we pretend to be unaware and cities continue to grow both in spread, in density of population and in disparities.

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But what if we were aware? What if we became disturbed? Might we take a fresh look at the paradox of the city that predates the invincible enemy of our times, namely climate chaos.

For millennia humans have sought the comfort of numbers – well-lit streets, safe and joyous public spaces, grand assembly halls for drama and music, dynamic bazaars with an enormous variety of food and other material goods – all of which depends on the masculine energy of extraction and surplus accumulation.

Yet, we also have a deep longing for the open horizon, the infinite diversity of life forms, the chorus of leaves rustling, the feeling of being blessed by the ephemeral beauty of trees – the feminine energy or prakriti.

Till a few decades ago the ideal city was one which tried to cater to both these urges. The threat of climate chaos has irrevocably altered that. For men and women alike the future of the city is no longer about more equal and safe open spaces, like gardens. The effort to create such spaces must continue but those struggles will look like child’s play compared to the perfect storms and relentless droughts and melting glaciers of climate chaos – that which, as Rilke wrote, “sends no one into the city to threaten or promise, and no one to negotiate”.

Climate chaos is a direct consequence of the absolute and brutal dominance of the masculine energies which began just before the industrial revolution. This is the energy, and mindset, which gives far more value to the metal ore deep inside a mountain rather than to the vibrant biological life on the surface and in the topsoil of the mountain.

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This is the energy which further sharpens the imbalance – for example, by turning Mumbai’s mill area into high density, private, built-up spaces rather than commons where prakriti would have given us breathing spaces.

All of us who accept this as inevitable, even worthwhile, are inhabitants of the “undisturbed city”.

By contrast, the feminine energy is that which values organic life and would build material comforts of the city in ways that at least make an attempt not to be at war with living systems.

“Degrowth” is a deliberately provocative term used by some activist groups mostly for its shock value. What it actually calls for is the need to redefine growth – so that we give more value to that which actually sustains our life, notably clean air and living spaces that foster a sense of peace and community – rather than claustrophobia.

So, let us wake up from being undisturbed. To be disturbed is to accept what two advocates of “natural capitalism” said decades ago: “nature bats last and it owns the stadium”.

Rajni Bakshi is the author of ‘Bazaars, Conversations and Freedom: For a Market Culture Beyond Greed and Fear’

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