The current pandemic might temporarily slow down environmentally destructive economic growth. However, claiming that we are dying for sustainability is dangerous. The global sustainability crisis is not just driven by uneconomic growth but also increasing global inequality and social stratification.
Suggesting that COVID-19 is a pathway to sustainability is tempting. Transnational oil corporations have halted production. Oil prices have tumbled. Plans for new oil explorations have been halted. Shale gas companies are folding up. Air travel has plummeted. So has road travel. Consequently, emission levels have dropped. Skies have cleared. Rare and remote species of animals appear to be back in sight. As recently demonstrated elsewhere, some of this optimism is based on questionable information. Others can be questioned for comparing long-term socio-ecological change with short-term outcomes of a pandemic.
Still, humanity seems to have rediscovered its sacrosanct relationship with nature. The ramifications are wide-ranging. Some employers now recognise that work can be done from home. With so many virtual conferences now taking place, it appears that international travel is not so much needed. Maybe not so many people are needed either. Australian philosopher, Peter Singer, welcomes the death of so many old people who are no longer productive. Perhaps the reduction in unsustainable population growth could also be welcome. A world that is small and serene has come.
Is this a plausible pathway to start the journey described in The Limits to Growth, first published in 1972? The update of that work suggests that whatever the pathway, we must have limits to growth. That is evidently the argument made by political economists such as Ezra Mishan who coined the name ‘growthmania’ in The Costs of Economic Growth, published about a decade before The Limits to Growth.
Growthmania has become even more problematic in recent times.From this perspective, only a pandemic, a major rapture like COVID-19, can disrupt the path of unsustainable growth. Humanity appears to be dying for sustainability.
Over the years, however, the critique of the degrowth movement, suggests that the story is not as simple. The current socioecological crises are far more complex. Uneconomic growth, as Herman Daly calls it, is only one of them.
Limits to Inequality
Inequality is, perhaps, even more fundamental to the sustainability crisis. For the Global South, addressing inequalities has been the central sustainability challenge. This point was echoed in the famous Brundtland Report which declared that “This inequality is the planet’s main ‘environmental’ problem’”. The report promoted ‘sustainable development’ as an antidote. Yet, this idea was, in effect, sustainable economic growth. Such contradiction in ambitions can be seen in the current SDGs as well.
Growthism has taken a strong resurgence. Critics have, consequently, blamed the pursuit of sustainable development as the primary reason. Not only has sustainable development come to erode, corrupt and dilute the lofty ideals of ‘limits to growth’; the argument goes, it has also expanded and justified more growthism.The catechists for growth have, accordingly, been enabled to hide behind the poorer world for their own gains. Consequently, ‘limiting growth’ has become a major preoccupation of many environmentalists and activists.
Yet, the centrality of inequality to socio-ecological crises needs to be recognised and addressed. Limits to inequalities is what the South demands; not limitless growth. The rising movements around the world are, in fact, against the rise of the 1%, a shorthand for inequality. Thomas Piketty’ s book, which has had world-wide acclaim, is on inequality. The MeToo Movement and Black Lives Matter are both about addressing inequality. This demand is theoretically sound. Widely endorsed by Herman Daly, Richard Wilkinson, and Kate Pickett, considering the ramifications of Maintaining status is one way of fleshing it out. Analysing the tendencies for Catch Up, and reflecting on the effects of monopolising Privilege (three crucial indicators of inequality) on the environment can offer even more clarity.
Consider Maintaining Status. Inequality fosters consumerism. The wealthy seek to maintain their status. Temptations to buy more and more set in. When the world is unequal, binge purchases and consumption sustain unsustainable volumes of production meant for the wealthy. At the national level, such processes are quite well-known, but similar comments apply to global inequalities too. Status shapes global consumerism. Among the wealthy countries of the world, there is a race to show position: whether it is spending more on arms, going to space, or building more transportation systems. This desire to succour the leisure class, as Thorstein Veblen once called them, is widespread. However, it is especially pronounced among the very rich countries and the middle-income ones. Yet, maintaining it is bad for the environment. When such a practice becomes rampant, it sets in motion problematic forces of mimicry.
That is one way to explain why catching up is related to maintaining status. So long as inequality persists, the concern among the middle-class and some poorer countries is to seek catching up as progress. Often though, this maintenance of privilege gives world development organisations, usually located in the same wealthy nations, the power to impose these standards on the poorer nations. Catching up becomes development. With this dynamic in place, opportunistic pressures to pollute to similar levels as the wealthy lend themselves. In this process, polluter pays arguments are transformed. They become Western payments for nature, carbon sinks drilled in the Global South apparently save the planet.
Yet, this transfer of land from the South to the North, disguised as a way to ensure ‘catch up’, is, in fact, another way of cementing the monopoly of privilege. Globally, absentee landlord states and their transnational corporations continue to monopolise the land commons in the Global South. Not only do they control the global value chains and the global commodity chains, they also control the downstream transport and petroleum industries. They make decisions and influence world mineral pricing. They manipulate the demand, and supply of such resources. They transport fossil fuels over long distances. After refinement, they return the waste products to the South. Significant pollution and dispossession arise from this inequality of ownership and control. Increasing rentierism, absentee ownership, dispossession, and systemic environmental accidents arise. These processes attest to the environmental pandemic that arises from unequal property relations.
Within nations, the concentration of land in the hands of a few raises serious concerns. The resulting rent increases generates unsustainable national transformation. Rental increases drive sprawl and longer commuting patterns. Land concentration also explains widespread insecurities. In turn, uncertainties drive the rise of gated housing estates. This trend is concerning. Not only does the building sector, dominated by a small powerful hierarchy of transnational corporations and absentee estate developers, generate 30 per cent of global annual emissions, it also consumes 40 per cent of global energy pool.
These inequalities have become more complex with time. So have the ecological crises. Both are intertwined. These socio-ecological problems, in turn, create social stratification. They tear communities apart. Broken, society cannot be sustainable. When farms are replaced with fences and fences with gates, where the desire for rent drives the pursuit of land, and when more and more land is concentrated in few hands, what is needed is not just sustainability; but a just sustainability.
Beyond Limits to Growth
There cannot be any sustainability without equity. The emphasis on growthmania as the central and only problem of sustainability has brought us far, but it can take us no further. Continuing to insist on it prioritises environmental sustainability over social and economic sustainability. Growing inequality and social stratification undermine environmental sustainability. Ecological justice suffers. Placing limits on inequality and stratification is, therefore, crucial. For holistic and fundamental transformation, what is needed is not just sustainability but a just sustainability.
If there is any useful analytical lesson from COVID-19, it is that our methodologies need to be holistic and our analysis historical. Without these transdisciplinary approaches and transformation in how we study sustainability, we risk overlooking just sustainabilities and reifying environmentalism.
Thus, if more research is needed on COVID-19, it should not only be on finding a vaccine and empirically ascertaining its effects on economic growth. Although important, what is urgent is research on sustainability and COVID-19 within the context of limits to inequality.
Franklin Obeng-Odoom leads the HELSUS Global South research theme. He teaches in Development Studies, and he is the author of Property, Institutions, and Social Stratification in Africa.
Many thanks to Drs. Kaisa Korhonen-Kurki, Michiru Nagatsu, Jussi T. Eronen, and Andreas Exner for excellent feedback. Voices for Sustainability team deserve special thanks for their patience and constructive suggestions.
Author: Chaitawat Boonjubun. 23rd March 2020.
In summer 2018, a medical doctor phoned me to discuss the issue of the city and public health. As he knew from a friend of mine that I was studying for a doctoral degree concerning urban studies, he asked me, ‘What is urban about public health?’ In other words, what are the linkages between ‘urban’ and public health? Arguably, one of the most convenient ways to define ‘urban’ is by distinguishing ‘urban’ from ‘rural’. In the case of Thailand, according to this doctor, statistical data regarding the number of patients with diabetes, heart disease, for example, did not show much difference between those who live in urban and rural settings. The doctor and I agreed that statistics alone seemed to be a challenge to persuade policymakers to draw up special measures in dealing with urban health issues. We thus discussed a wide range of factors that would make ‘urban health’ differ from ‘rural health’ including density, size of the population, health care facilities and services, governance, and the way of life. It is important to note that this discussion focused solely on the case of non-infectious diseases.
Keil and Ali, in their essay ‘Governing the Sick City: Urban Governance in the Age of Emerging Infectious Disease’ (2007: 848), published in Antipode, argue that the 2003 SARS outbreak was a result of ‘increased connectivity’ in the globalised world influenced by transportation technologies. They pointed out that urban areas were more vulnerable to infectious diseases due to high-density and accelerated land use. Furthermore, especially because of the ‘globality’ of cities, it was difficult to contain the outbreak within a city and by merely local health authorities.
In the wake of the on-going novel coronavirus outbreak, large cities have been hit harder than smaller cities in terms of: the number of affected citizens, for example, IS 438 cases in Uusimaa (including Helsinki) out of the total of 686 across Finland (Helsingin Sanomat, 23 March 2020) and 297 affected people in Bangkok Metropolitan Area out of 721 cases throughout Thailand (Department of Disease Control, 23 March 2020); the healthcare system becoming overload when the affected cases continue to rise abruptly; the severe impact of the outbreak on the city’s economy and employment as the majority of companies, stores, shops, and restaurants have shut down and workers have been laid off; and, the loss of urban life since public places are closed down and mobility is restricted. There are also unintended consequences, both negative and positive: a rural ‘exodus’ launched by the present situation might cause the city dwellers to carry the infectious disease with them to rural areas where health facilities are insufficient, but cities may become less polluted due to less commercial and industrial activities.
By looking at current official measures and orders used in many cities to tackle the outbreak, it shows complex power relations of jurisdictional responsibilities between state and city government/municipality in preventing, treating, and curing the disease. In most cases, cities/municipalities cannot implement emergency laws by themselves if a state of emergency has not yet been issued by the central government. Also, it is usually the role of state authorities (and of cities/municipalities for some cases) to redress the economic effects of the outbreak, for instance, to suspend mortgage and rent payments or to reduce electricity and water fees. This is the time for states and cities/municipalities to show their consolidation, and at once to place the lives of citizens above the economic growth of the city.
Department of Disease Control, Thailand (2020). Coronavirus Situation. Available from: http://covid19.ddc.moph.go.th/
Helsingin Sanomat (2020). Finland’s Corona Virus Status. Available from: https://korona.kans.io/?language=en.
Keil, R., & Ali, H. (2007). Governing the Sick City: Urban Governance in the Age of Emerging Infectious Disease. Antipode, 39(5), 846-873. Available from: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1467-8330.2007.00555.x
Date: 30th January, 2020, at 13:15 – 17:30,
Venue: Suomen Laki Hall, Porthania (1 st floor), University of Helsinki (address: Yliopistonkatu 3)
Academy Professor Anne Haila (1953–2019) was the first professor of Urban Studies in Finland. She was an internationally renowned scholar and a leading thinker in her field. Her work on land, rent, real estate and housing issues spanned decades. Anne was widely regarded as the land rent theorist par excellence. Her book Urban Land Rent is a piercing analysis of the role of property and land rent in urbanization and has become an instant classic in Urban Studies. Unexpectedly, Professor Haila passed away on September 21st 2019, bringing her ascending career to a close all too early.
To commemorate Anne’s ground-breaking academic oeuvre, we are proud to announce the first annual Alternatives symposium, to be held on 30th January 2020.
Anne’s legacy resides on the pages of her publications that continue to inspire scholars from all around the world, reaping citations and yielding research ideas towards the critical understanding of how our urbanized world works. Moreover, Anne’s memory lives in the minds of the hundreds of students she taught throughout her career. She also left as a legacy a dynamic collective of urban scholars called The Helsinki School of Critical Urban Studies. We are an international group of urban scholars based at the University of Helsinki, inspired by the critical turn in urban scholarship. Many of us continue to conduct our research in Anne Haila’s Academy Professorship project Alternatives to Private Land Tenure (or simply “Alternatives”).
The inaugural Alternatives Symposium hosts three lectures by invited international, leading urban scholars whose work is centered on exploring land, rent, real estate, financialization, housing and homelessness and tie in with the pursuits of the Alternatives project.
Professor Brett Christophers, Uppsala University: “After ‘The New Enclosure’”
In this talk I will use Anne Haila’s work and thinking as a prism through which to discuss my recent book on the mass privatization of land in Britain, ‘The New Enclosure’. This privatization has contributed to turning Britain into a rentier-capitalist nation, one increasingly scarred by social dislocations directly attributable to that privatization. Anne’s primary question about the current conjuncture in Britain would, I think, have been: What alternatives to dominant commodified forms of land ownership and use exist, and should be politically pursued? This is the question I want to reflect on in the talk.
Professor Don Mitchell, Uppsala University: “Mean Streets Metastasized: Rent, Real Estate, and Homelessness after the Urban Revolution”
A reconceptualization of abstract space and understanding it through key themes vital in Anne Haila’s work – rent and real estate – will allow us to understand homelessness in new ways: not as a condition of individuals (as dominant ideology understands it), and not (merely) as a condition of houselessness (as much critical theory understands it), but a pre-condition of capital accumulation in the urban age.
Professor Mi Shih, Rutgers University: ”Value Capture by Land Financialization: Planning Police Power, Private Property Ownership, and Speculative Urbanism in Taiwan”
Land value capture is often lauded as planners’ clever leverage of market forces to return private gains to the public. Implicit in the normative argument for value capture is the perception that the real estate market is a sphere separate from planning, which holds a mandate and the expertise to rein in the former’s profit-driven motives. In this talk, I challenge this apolitical thinking of value capture. I do so by situating Taiwan’s “zonal expropriation” (quduan zhengshou), a variant of land readjustment used in Europe and Asia, in the institutionalization of land financialization. I argue that land value capture is largely predicated on a symbiotic relationship between the local government and the real estate market. There is nothing inherently public in value capture.
|13:25-14:30||Mi Shih (Rutgers University): Value Capture by Land Financialization: Planning Police Power, Private Property Ownership, and Speculative Urbanism in Taiwan|
|14:30-15:30||Brett Christophers (Uppsala University): After ‘The New Enclosure’|
|16:00-17:00||Don Mitchell (Uppsala University): Mean Streets Metastasized: Rent, Real Estate, and
Homelessness after the Urban Revolution
|17:00-17:30||Closing words and general discussion|
On behalf of the Helsinki School of Critical Urban Studies,
Despite the burgeoning literature on online deliberation, few studies have empirically examined the effectiveness of policy design and behavior intervention. Most previous studies tend to focus on new technology and evaluate the quality of deliberation and opinion change based on interviews, surveys, and experiments. However, the author argues that the role of governments is still crucial regardless of technology, and attention needs to be paid to research how citizens actually engage in online deliberative settings. Against the backdrop, the author will present preliminary results of a case study that aims to analyze the effect of interventions on online engagement. The analysis selected a case of Omastadi, a pilot participatory budgeting project initiated by the City of Helsinki that used a digital platform in which citizens proposed and developed ideas into feasible plans in collaboration with citizens and experts. The raw data were collected by parsing the web pages of all proposals and plans, then reconstructed into longitudinal network data. The relationship between interventions and significant change of engagement will be analyzed through stochastic actor-oriented models.
Time: 17.1.2020 at 13:15-14:45, Metsätalo (Unioninkatu 40) Sali 29
Anne Haila ( 1953 – 2019), ‘the most important Georgist in the World’, dies at 66.
She loved to read, reflect, and recount what she had read. Research had to be dialectical or it was mediocre. She was a warrior for Southern Knowledge, but not all versions of it. Although she was on top of the state-of-the-art in the social sciences and the expansive breadth of research approaches in the social sciences, for her, no social science enquiry was complete without a serious engagement with land – not just as a thing, but its rent. No, she was not a physiocrat, even if she was fond of the Agricultural University of Norway where she worked from 1997 to 1998. Her focus was cities. Indeed, as one of only a few Academy Professors in Finland, a Finnish way of saying ‘Distinguished Professor’, or the crème de la crème of the Finnish professoriate, she was more a disciple of Henry George and Sun Yat-sen than she was of Francois Quesnay, Charles Richard de Butre, or any of the French physiocrats. In Finland, she attributed the influences on her to Pekka V. Virtanen who assured her of the uniqueness of land and to Lauri af Heurlin ‘who released the issue of land rent from the academic curfew imposed upon it’.
Urban Inequality in Finland
Master of Social Sciences Mika Hyötyläinen defended his doctoral dissertation, titled Divided by Policy – Urban Inequality in Finland at the University of Helsinki on 23.3.2019. The opponent was Professor Robert Beauregard of Columbia University, New York. This is the transcript of the opening lecture, lectio praecursoria, given by Mika, who now as post-doctoral researcher continues exploring Alternatives
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For more information about the talk, please visit the website at https://ari.nus.edu.sg/events/religion-commons-and-urban-question/
Source of image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Siivousp%C3%A4iv%C3%A4.jpg
About the Speakers
Anne Haila is Academy Professor and Professor of Urban Studies, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Helsinki, Finland. From 1994 to 1996 she was Senior Fellow at Faculty of Architecture and Building, National University of Singapore. In recent years, her research has focussed on property rights, property markets and the role of state intervention in regulating property market. Cases of her research have been particularly Singapore, Finland, China and Hong Kong. Among her publications are: Urban Land Rent: Singapore as a Property State, Wiley Blackwell 2016, The market as the new emperor, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 2007, Real estate in global cities: Singapore and Hong Kong as property states, Urban Studies, 2000, and Four types of investment in land and property, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 1991.
Mika Hyötyläinen’s doctoral thesis, Divided by Policy: Urban Inequality in Finland, investigates the roles of land and housing policies in the material and symbolic inequalities of Finnish cities. His scholarly interests reside in the realm of critical urban studies. gentrification, territorial stigmatization, urban commons and land and housing policies are some of the topics Mika explores.
Sefer Kahraman is a researcher in Urban Studies at the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Helsinki. His thesis discusses urban transit transformations in Chiang Mai, Thailand. His education in comparative urban studies focuses on the land question and the scholarly discussion around Southeast Asia. His interests include different property ownership understandings and practices based on cultural values, religion and language in the Global South.
Admission is free. We would greatly appreciate if you click on the “Register” button above to RSVP.
This post is to announce the special session “Alternatives to Private Landownership 1: Global South Perspectives” in the upcoming American Association of Geographers Annual Meeting 2019 in Washington D.C.
The mantra of privatization repeated for years and the unfortunately ineffectual criticism against land grabbing have left other than private land tenure forms in the shadow. This session discusses such other tenure types: for example, unregistered land, collectively owned land, communal land, state land and municipal land. The question asked is how these non-private forms of land tenure can resolve urban problems. Previous studies have focused on rural land, regarded informal land rights as causing urban problems, and ignored the rights that are specific to cities, for instance, development rights. We are interested in filling these research gaps and overcome false prejudices and assumptions. We call studies on non-private urban land tenure investigating, for example, the effects and functions of non-private urban land tenure; methods of studying non-private urban land; scholars and intellectual traditions neglected but who have developed theories, approaches and visions of non-private ownership; alternatives to the theories of the highest and best use of land. Examples of studies this session calls are the following: what are the benefits of informal land rights in kampongs in Southeast Asia; how Chinese villagers who own the land collectively make decisions on the use of their land; are community land trusts or community gardens a solution; have the state and municipalities began treating the land they own as a financial asset; why Nordic welfare states and cities prioritize efficiency to equity in their land policies? The studies can concern cities in the Global South as well as in the Global North.
Alternatives to private landownership 1: Global South Perspectives
Start / End Time: 3:05 PM / 4:45 PM
Room: Washington 4, Marriott, Exhibition Level
Organizers: Anne Haila
Chairs: Mika Hyotylainen
|Haoxuan Sa, University of Helsinki, What made villagers in Xiaojia giving up farming and became developers|
|Yu Zhang, School of Urban Planning and Design, Peking University, De Tong, School of Urban Planning and Design, Peking University, Ian MacLachlan, School of Urban Planning and Design, Peking University, From Land Value Capture to Value Sharing: evidence from the new town construction in China|
|Franklin Obeng-Odoom, University of Helsinki, Further Thoughts on Valuing unregistered urban land in Indonesia|
|Tauran Tauran, University of Helsinki, Kampung residents left without the registration of their land: Land registration in Surabaya|
Mi Shih, Rutgers University
Mi Shih joined the faculty of the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy in 2014 as an assistant professor. Prior to this appointment, she served as an assistant professor in the Human Geography and Planning Program at the University of Alberta, Canada. Between 2011 and 2013, she worked as a postdoctoral research fellow in the China Research Centre at the University of Technology, Sydney, Australia. She received her Ph.D. in Planning and Public Policy from Rutgers University in 2010. Her main research focus is on understanding the role of urban planning in shaping Chinese cities and the everyday lives of Chinese citizens in the post-reform era. Her research interest has expanded from an early focus on Shanghai to a broader perspective encompassing a number of cities in both China and Taiwan.