I often wonder if it would be possible to do any kind of serious study into urban morphology without the help of Google Earth. I know it has been indispensable to my studies, perhaps as indispensable as the microscope is to biologists. Google Earth is our macroscope, it allows us to see what is too large to see with the naked eye. But no matter how useful satellite photography is, you cannot truly see depth without aerial photography, and the master of aerial photography is without a doubt French photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand, famous for enormous coffee-table books filled with photography so rich as to be overwhelming.
Arthus-Bertrand has made the jump to high-definition cinematography and directed a “documentary” (there is really no accurate way to describe this film) called Home, which was released free of charge on the Internet a few weeks ago. You can watch it on YouTube or download it from your favorite BitTorrent source. The film is awe-inspiring. Here are some still images I extracted.
The film is a tour of Earth’s ecologies, starting from elementary life to cities. The most striking images are those of natural cities, particularly one which seems to grow out of the rock as if it were only a feature of it. And who can argue that it isn’t? But that detail seems to escape the narrative.
Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s talent is undeniable, at some point in the film he even makes Manhattan seem small. But the film quickly turns into a vessel of green propaganda (sponsored by the Gucci fashion house) while it could have been a celebration of mankind’s ties to nature. At the climax of its alarmism, the foundation of the green mindset is spelled out with as much emphasis as the narrator can apply. Denouncing the thaw of Siberian permafrost, the narrator recites “if the permafrost melts, the methane released would cause the greenhouse effect to race out of control with consequences no one can predict.” At no point in the film does the alarm in her voice sound so grave. It is not so much climate change that is feared, but the unknown, any change at all.
The obsession with control and prediction is tragically what has caused the most destruction and chaos in our human ecologies. It is control that dictates that homes may not be owned in the world’s sprawling slums, in the name of upholding a failed prediction, city planning. Because slum homes can be summarily demolished the slums remain in squalid poverty, vulnerable to any environmental change, man-made or not. The only true sustainability in a chaotic world is the ability to renew our environments for any change we meet, and control and prediction are an obstacle to this.
Green politics fails not because it relies on facts that are incorrect, but because it relies on facts that are inherently unknowable. We can sound the alarm about the total global population, the fact is we have absolutely no idea what the total global population is. We can at best obtain an estimate, but that estimate is useless for any kind of action. Action in a complex system is local and does not rely on global knowledge, but only on reacting to local conditions. The environment always tells you what to be doing in the moment.
In its obsession with control, the film ends up making recommendations for creating the same kind of technocratic utopia that was promised to us by the modernists. It praises one of the world’s poorest countries for having one of the most intensive state schooling program, evading a causal link between poverty and control of children’s minds. The ultimate solution to climate change proposed is to cover the world’s open land with solar panels, and the seas with wind farms, an act that would be as destructive to the environment as all the other monocultures denounced in the film. (And no one dares ask where those solar panels came from.)
Never is a serious look taken at the process of the natural cities, which to someone trapped in the paradigm of control and prediction would make absolutely no sense, but which Christopher Alexander masterfully demystifies in The Nature of Order. Only through such a revolution can we avoid repeating the chaos of modernism with a green twist.
People trapped in the mindset of prediction cannot think beyond simple physical processes (type I and II of Wolfram’s classification). These processes are always highly unstable and prone to die with any disruption. But life is not a simple process. It is a process that is always expanding, growing exponentially to fill any space it can fit into. Biologists quarantined a volcanic island that appeared into existence in the 1960’s near Iceland. They wanted to see how life colonized it. This process has taken place at astonishing speed, and today the island teems with life and has a rich cover of top soil, bewildering the biologists. The real threat to the island is not ecological disequilibrium, but the inevitable erosion back into the ocean.
Life is the most powerful force in the universe. It will take anything the Earth does to it. But unless we adopt life as our own social paradigm, we will not fare well. If we base our society on control instead of growth, the first unpredictable shock we witness will cause our collapse. So watch Home, be inspired by it, but do yourself a favor and turn the sound off.