COVID-19 brought the relation between humans and animals to the core of social and scientific debates. COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease: the coronavirus that causes it crossed species boundaries from animals to humans. A wet market in Wuhan may be the place where that original species-jump happened.
Urbanization is a process that involves extending the city as much as it involves the concentration of activities and movements of people and stuff. Traditionally, the urban periphery is described as either polished middle-class suburbia with perfectly manicured lawns or invisible dumping ground: polluting factories, nuclear plants, garbage dumps and recycling facilities as well as retirement homes.
Extended urbanization happens within a capitalist framework of massive inequality. The food, gas, electricity and water that make urban life possible are often packaged, piped, cabled and plumbed into the city. Urban lifestyles are sustained by vast networks of infrastructure and industry that reach into environments well beyond.
These relationships are profoundly shaped by the exploitation, injustice and oppression that capitalism relies on and perpetuates. The colonial character of urbanization violently transforms material landscapes and destroys, diminishes and confines visions of difference, resistance and possibility.
In California, prison labour — increasingly managed by private companies — is used to fight wildfires. Meanwhile, animals and other non-human life trying to escape scorched landscapes change their relationships with humans as was the case during the Australian inferno that began in September 2019.
Science fiction, which often occupies its own kind of literary periphery, can help us examine and imagine new human-nature relationships.
In Christopher Nolan’s 2014 movie Interstellar, humanity attempts to escape nature — and its own nature — by becoming a God-like, post-human divinity that can control black holes and wormholes. In contrast, in Denis Villeneuve’s 2017 film Blade Runner 2049, sustainability and food efficiency are achieved in a post-capitalist manner: the globe is covered in solar panels and synthetic farms. What remains is a deeply divided planet, and the political ecologies of extended urbanization are classed, racialized and gendered. https://www.youtube.com/embed/hpCgdtnMcfE?wmode=transparent&start=0 This scene from ‘Blade Runner 2049’ shows a flight over a futuristic Los Angeles, Calif.
Blaming environmental destruction on all of humanity obscures the variable degrees to which people are responsible; this depends both on their economic and political power and their access to and use of natural resources.
It isn’t urbanization alone that caused the pandemic, and it isn’t capitalism alone either. It is the political ecology of extended urbanization that created the conditions under which COVID-19 could emerge, proliferate and go global.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Roger Keil, Professor, Environmental Studies, York University, Canada; Maria Kaika, Professor of Urban and Environmental Planning, University of Amsterdam; Tait Mandler, PhD Candidate, Anthropology and Urban Planning, University of Amsterdam, and Yannis Tzaninis, Postdoctoral fellow, Sociology, University of Amsterdam