Dedicated To Professor Robert Scher. University of Northern Arizona.
I was invited by Professor Robert Scher to give a talk several years ago before the Arizona bench on The Innocence Project and start out by thanking him for inspiring this. I was most grateful. It was a huge respite at the time. Robert is based in Flagstaff and it is a fascinating place.
Above the town and a steep uphill walk is The Lowell Observatory where Pluto was finally identified.
In fact apart I believe from Peru there is more climate diversity in Arizona in a smaller place than any other part on earth. The drive from Phoenix to Flagstaff only a few hours straight uphill starts with arid desert and cacti in abundance and ends up in alpine forests. It is like a compressed tour of the planet’s geological and plant diversity.
It is also a subtle or none too subtle reminder of all that we are losing and quickly.
The science is quite clear that within 60 years all animal life will be extinct so The Sixth Extinction (2015) by Kolbert maintains and although human mass extinction will not I predict take place as certain dystopias fear in reality it will by increments diminish.
Various parts of the earth will be rendered uninhabitable by plant and animal extinction and environmental meltdown thus encouraging more mass migration with no clear destination or acceptance and with social quarantining in secluded detention centers an obvious solution.
The divide in spoils and income and the radical variations in wealth and assets will cause earlier deaths through poverty and an under resourced protection system. Death on The Installment Plan (1936) as Céline would have it. The obsession with marketisation and growth has led to downfall and draconian legislation will become an increasing norm as state authorities seek to preserve social cohesion.
In effect A kind of enforced Social Darwinist Malthusian liquidation will take place precipitated and caused by environmental decline which some see rather alarmingly and with far too much sangfroid as necessary. Of course all well and good if you are not in the firing line.
A crucial consideration flagged in detail by John Gray among others is that agriculture topsoil is being eroded at rapid rates. Further, that the use of pesticides and market speculations in agricultural fuels is also destroying everything. Never mind the aforementioned migration problems of overheating and reduced human living capacity due to the greenhouse effect.
Gray in effect argues for a form of coalition of ideas between moderate conservatism and the green agenda. Conserve institutionally that which is good in terms of environmental and civic health. . This is a variant of the term sustainable growth or development. However, such thoughts though admirable are probably going to be non effective.
First and foremost the post truth universe has led to the multiple airings of climate change sceptics and climate change deniers peddling inaccurate ideologically driven lies and getting them accepted as an alternate point of view. One of the forms of cultural blindness that is most damning apart from political correctness is the obsession with balanced coverage. There is no such thing and nonsense does not deserve public ventilation in the media or law courts nor the purveyors of nonsense.
But Fox News and indeed The Irish Independent which respectfully reports the views of the dancing gnome of leprucauhitis Michael O’ Leary on climate change and other vectors permit endorses and encourages the same.
The agenda is clear: The super rich prizes its assets and its riches, the pillaging of the earth, more than the protection of the planet. Also the impending collapse is underreported or not viewed with clarity. So in the midst of the immediate pressing destruction of the virus the much more disturbing report recently to this effect needs to be foregrounded.
According to the Geophysical Research Letters the ongoing melding of the glaciers of Antarctica is now going to be exacerbated by the collapse of the greatest canyon on earth The Denman Glacier. As of now the glacier is mostly cut off from the sea thanks to all the glacial ice piled inside and atop the ravine.
However, as the glacier’s edge continues to retreat farther and farther down the slope, warm ocean water will pour into the canyon, battering bigger and bigger sections of the glacier and gradually turning the Denman trough into a giant bowl of melt water with nowhere else to go.
This scenario, the researchers wrote, could kick off a runaway feedback loop of melt that ultimately returns all of Denman Glacier’s ice to the sea — risking nearly 5 feet (1.5 m) of global sea level rise quite apart from rogue gigantic icebergs recently floating.
It also means that there will be severe population migrations from South to North as overheating increases such as the ever prevalent boats arriving at Sicily or from Mexico or other countries. People will be desperate and refugee crises will compound leading to ever more draconian solutions to control population migration and to regulate and in effect dispose of humanity for protectionist purposes.
In short there will be chaos and ever increasing chaos. A spiraling madness.
Nor will the developed world be immune far from it. The increasing crisis coupled with pandemics with pandemics to come will further precipitate world financial collapse and has already led to the growth of authoritarianism and an ever oppressive jackboot state. In a sense the ensuing chaos will further strengthen the authority of the state and corporate interests. As John Gray remarked in a different context civilization is being replaced by barbarism. In fact there has always been a tension in liberalism between these polarities.
So The Lowell Observatory where Pluto was discovered is at the highest point of Flagstaff on a hill overlooking that beautiful hippie town. An oasis of education and funkiedom also is an emblem of the past or present. In fact the small town but community driven living of Flagstaff might be a useful way to run our lives in the future also an environmental consideration.
Fintan O’Toole has recently argued for the redevelopment of Irish urban spaces to provide bright coloured houses and such is evident in nordic countries and middle europe. Even Michael McDowell argues for the urban regeneration of Smithfield. We need to paint our houses in bright colours and it is cost effective but we also need more houses and not fabricated dwellings for fabricated lives. better models for living.
There are also environmental considerations about the quality of civic life with all of this. The cultural observer of society Alain De Botton in one of his very perceptive monographs wrote a book called “The Architecture of Happiness” (outlined the thesis that the buildings we occupy and the spaces we live and work in affect our state of well being and happiness). That there is thus a correlation between our state of mental health and our living and working conditions and that of course seems self evident.
Thus placing people in skyscrapers or as per the designs of the Bauhaus tower blocks of uninhabitability treats people as battery hens. America is the paradigm of the skyscraper mentality and Chicago under such architects of the future as Sullivan the progenitor of all of this. Earlier than Bauhaus.
I have had the privilege of visiting perhaps the seminal modernist or rather brutalist building of sustainable living in apartments Le Corbusier‘s Unite d’Habitation (1952) the perfect expression of his idea of “a machine for living in” and though wonderful in principle in application a bastardised disaster. The problem is not that or Gaudi‘s earlier more pleasant La Pedrera from an earlier period bu the tower blocks of the 60’s that were its progeny.
How can you function properly with a young family living in an overpriced tenement which chews away at much of your salary? Your commute to work in a pattern of urban flight to assist in greater livability compounds the problem as you spend your spare hours on a train to and from a workplace that often also contributes to the diminishing of your sense of well being and for that matter in conditions of over work and lack of exercise shortens your lifespan.
Thus a wildcatting lack of urban planning, the unregulated and the overpriced nature of the same is further accentuating our spiraling sense of chaos and social disintegration. The drug problem in the north of the city was caused by putting people into tower blocks rather than affordable and liveable housing structures.
Ireland wildcat capitalism is not unlike the road into Agrigento in Sicily, Italy full of disused or half built monstrosities after the mafia took backhanders. The skyscrapers and the crowded urban spaces and the slums have merged together to create an Ecocidal space in many places.
But not in Flagstaff.
Well what is good or very good urban planning. Well Paris was a crime and slum invested medieval city until the Baron de Huysmans created its prototypical grid system and its boulevards which have made it the definitive city in the world attracting flocks of people every year to indulge in a practice called boulevard ism or strolling the streets of Paris or even being a flaneur. A healthy exercise, life affirming and environmentally sound. The desire to walk rather than use public transport. Walking safely. in an environment where people like to walk.
Or Referencing the lovely buildings of northern Europe and middle Europe what about more buildings like this Hunterwasser House in Vienna, Austria?
The remnants of Native American civilization are everywhere in Arizona and the Indian reservation was bedeviled by poverty, social exclusion and a measure of crime.
It is very difficult to escape the bind of ethnic exclusion in America and indeed Ireland.
The myth of upward mobility is merely often that. Poverty and inequality are the great determinants of social exclusion. The Hopi reservation is in fact a de facto separate territory but is compound living and indeed is segregation by wealth not creating the same effect. Not that different to the distinction between Smithfield and South Dublin. Worlds apart.
The most pressing point of concern for the students accompanying me to Flagstaff was seeing the Grand Canyon. The wide cavernous snaking drops into eternity. The long basilisk-like canyons like science fiction spaceships from Close Encounters. Or The Castles in The Sky of Miyazaki both of which creative works it no doubt influenced.
One cannot express the wonder of seeing it or dangling on the edge of eternity which I had to take the overzealous students back from. Indeed the lack of safety precautions was jaw dropping. One slip on the path round the edge and curtains. Unobservant visitors drop down the Canyon every few months! Sedona the famous red rocks in a valley downhill from Flagstaff also one of the most incredible outposts of nature.
The contrast with the over populated urban conurbations and this huge space of lightly populated (some Indian tribes and intrepid tourists go down to the bottom) is vast and also as result of a visit to the Lowell Observatory led to me being reminded of the famous quote by Carl Sagan and his book Pale Blue Dot.
My main touristic aim which in fact took great effort due to America’s non existent public transport system was to see Monument Valley, the site of John Ford‘s famous westerns. I think the greatest site on earth of sheer geophysical wonder or the greatest I have ever had the privilege of seeing and it eerie reminder of all we are losing quickly and indeed how a futuristic desolate landscape might look. Lunar like.
Thus Arizona reminds us of the beauty of the rural and natural world compared to our awful urban spaces and Flagstaff of how we can live well with a sense of community in small houses and affordable structures. It also causes us to understand the biodiversity and richness of the earth and how it is being undermined. it is in microcosm all we are losing and losing quickly.
David Langwallner is a barrister specialising in public law, immigration, housing and criminal defence including miscarriages of justice. He is emeritus director of the Irish innocence project and was Irish lawyer of the year at the 2015 Irish law awards. His column appears here every Tuesday and Friday. Follow David on Twitter @DLangwallner
Pic: Arizona Tourism