Searching for a Post-capitalist Landscape

Isaac Kirk-Davidoff, Spring 2016

By: Isaac Kirk-Davidoff, JE ’18, for the Spring 2016 Issue (PDF version)

Searching for a Post-capitalist Landscape

What would the world look like without capitalism? This is a question plenty of people have tried to answer. However, instead of just thinking about how our economic and political systems will have changed, it is important to consider, literally, how the world will look. Capitalism itself has a far-reaching effect on our landscapes, after all. Mass deforestation in order to grow monocultures, clear-cut logging leading to tinderbox forests, giant skyscrapers of entirely luxury apartments being built in Manhattan, the list goes on. By landscapes, I do not just mean wilderness areas, of course. Landscapes here can be understood to be the surrounding structure and appearance of our world. Our daily encounters with these landscapes literally shape our lives, creating the space through which we interact with the world. To understand the effects of matrix of capitalism on our world it is therefore necessary to examine capitalism’s effects on our landscapes. This is a broad topic, considering the entire earth, in some sense, forms a landscape, and I don’t pretend that what follows is at all a definitive analysis of the topic. Instead, by examining several different landscapes, I hope to show a way to detect elements of a possible future non-capitalist landscape lurking beneath today’s landscape.

What would an anti-capitalist landscape look like? Most people, I think, would view protected natural areas, “wild” areas, as fairly separate from modern society. The “natural” world stands opposed to the human world. This idea, with its assumed duality, finds its way into the depiction of the world in post-apocalyptic movies. These movies display forests that are recognizably “forests,” which to me seems like a mistake. It assumes that the natural world, without humanity, would look basically the same, just bigger. The same movies that show overgrown New Yorks and fallen capitols show forests that look as if a forester has only days before gone through and pruned it. Post-apocalyptic forests, I’d imagine, would be much more overgrown and scruffier than the movies let on. That media does not portray them this way is due to a simple fact. The forests where these scenes are shot, no matter how “wild” they are portrayed to be, still exist in a world where humans have manipulated and used almost every piece of land.

Similarly, the landscapes I interact with while hiking always seem “wild” on the surface, but clearly are heavily managed. The White Mountains National Forest in New Hampshire, for example, can seem like a vast, primeval forest. The forest, however, is mostly only one hundred years old or so. Before then, New Hampshire had been logged to the bone. Only after it was determined that the woods value standing was more than their value as an extractive resource were the forests allowed to grow back. Shenandoah National Park, in Virginia, also seems “wild.” It has beautiful sections of trail running through groves of mountain laurel and, at any point while hiking, one can find themselves walking through a parking lot for Skyline Drive, a large auto road bisecting the Park. One scenic, popular trail even is partially paved! What we think of as “wilderness,” is still shaped by human needs and wants, in other words.

This type of landscape, mixing “wild” spaces with human development, is seen to be out of fashion by some. The Ecomodernist Manifesto, a recent piece from the “science and buzzwords will fix everything” school of rhetoric, calls for a “decoupling” of humans from the environment. By moving into big cities, the idea is, we will let the rest of the planet be. As we grow more scientifically advanced, our ecological footprint will grow smaller and we’ll be able to let the forests be. Capitalism will correct itself, in other words. By observing capitalism’s effect on landscapes, it is clear this is naïve. Even if science were somehow able to magically end the unsustainable, extraction of resources favored by capitalism, the land will still be forever affected by the whatever production did occur. Removing the top of a mountain to mine coal, for example, permanently changes the landscape. In landscapes like the White Mountains, where there was plenty of prior development, the effects are still visible today. These landscapes weren’t preserved through some benign neglect, as the “decoupling” theory suggests. Instead, people fought to see them preserved, actively valuing them for their use as a landscape, rather than their price per ton of lumber.

The mark of capitalism, therefore, shows up throughout our natural landscapes. Our artificial landscapes are more obviously marked by capitalism. Gentrification, for example, is about changing the appearance of a neighborhood as much as its demography. Just as in natural areas, valuing a neighborhood for its extractive value (the value of its property) results in destructive change to that landscape. Using this relation, the method in which natural areas can be envisioned in ways besides their exchange value can be used to protect against capitalist aggression in cities. If a city’s citizens see their city’s landscape as being defined by an abstract sense of community (“over there is where my aunt lives,” “that’s where I would go to get my hair done and chat,” etc.), this can be used to combat exclusionary development in the same way that valuing a landscape for aesthetic/moral reasons can defeat extractive capitalism.

A concept of landscapes that links the natural and artificial ones can therefore be used to see capitalist wounds and anti-capitalist strategies in both. This piece originally had a different purpose: to envision a post-capitalist landscape. To create an idea of landscape based purely on theoretical ideas of what such a landscape should look like seemed fairly arrogant, however. These landscapes will arise not through any one person’s decree, but from a community’s decision to see their surroundings as valuable for reasons other than their extractive capabilities. By taking their surroundings into democratic control, a community can then decide how to honor these values and commitments in relation to their landscapes. Marx said the bourgeoisie created a world after its own image. The community, too, can do this for its surrounding landscape.

Image: Scott Remer, PC ’16