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Eco-perspectives from South America and other outlooks that differ from popular liberal opinion in North America

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

I wasn’t sure what to say. A conversation with Mauricio and Pio about nauseating ‘eco pop-stars’ (Peter Gabriel and Chris Martin were pipped at the post by Thom Yorke who said recently that he would consider refusing to tour 'on environmental grounds') changed tack when they laughed that they weren’t worried about global warming. I probed further. It was quite simple, they weren’t. And they were somewhat scornful of those that are. ‘Are you?’ I stuttered insecurely….was it possible not to be?!

When ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ is playing in cinemas across the globe, when a report has just been released in the UK warning of the £3.68 trillion ‘cost’ of ‘ignoring’ climate change, when chief scientific advisers are calling it a bigger threat than terrorism, when we’re being told the ‘debate is over’…….after reading ‘The Revenge of Gaia’ earlier this year, as a subscriber to Resurgence magazine, with worldchanging.com as my homepage…..what options are there but to be concerned?

How to think now about my new Argentine mentors, who had just broken the boundaries of all Euro-American political correctness?

I thought about this in my last week in Buenos Aires and I had to think about my position as much as theirs. Slowly but surely I can feel the firm ground under my feet becoming slightly more marshmallow-like. ‘Global Warming’ may be a worldwide phenomenon with consequences for everyone, but it still looks different depending on where you’re imagining it from.

For example, in the USA, the discussion about ‘global warming’ among ‘those that believe’ is dominated by a kind of moral indignation. The context is a country dominated by oil interests, the world’s largest polluter with a bad track record of associated action. ‘Thinking’ North Americans are self-conscious about their problematic foreign policy, uncomfortable about their car-dependent cities, guilty about their affluence in an asymmetrical world and haunted by Exxon media campaigns aimed at discrediting climate science. To ‘not’ be concerned with global warming is almost unthinkable unless you are a right-wing, head-in-the-sand, Bush-lover (and even his traditional base, the evangelical Christians, are calling for radical changes in environmental policy).

But Mauricio and Pio are not of this latter cut. They are political agitators, self-described ‘humanists’, motivated less by money than by a greedy interest in a sprawling range of topics and are some of the most well-read people I’ve ever worked with. So their criticisms are rather interesting. Mauricio draws parallels between the media-driven fear of ‘global warming’ and the Cold War – a cultivated terror of the ‘abstract unknown’ and the convenience this opens up for self-serving political agendas and Orwellian government tendencies. He despises ‘radical chic’, a description which rather too closely fits a particular brand of Berkeley environmentalism. But most of all what I have come to better realise is that to be Argentine (at least the ones I met!) is to have a robust scepticism of moral certainty, authority, bureaucracy and consensus, a scepticism which has been fuelled by political contexts of military dictatorships and recent economic collapse.

While they might not deny the science of climate change, they argue against what they see as a political monopoly on the discussion of it - you are either ‘pro' global warming or you are in denial (a la George Bush ‘you are with us or you are against us’). I agree that it is quite common to hear it presented in morally simplistic terms ('we, the converted'). m7 resist this ‘fake agreement before the debate has started’, a kind of we know what we need to accomplish, all we have to work out how to get there’ attitude....though they concede that what is interesting is that it’s global - that it can be talked about everywhere ‘is the start of something new.’ Mauricio added “the English spent most of the last century setting up the infrastructure that created it, and now they are horrified, and trying to do something about it.” He stuck his thumb into the air and smiled: “Global Warming….Cool Britannia!” It's true, global warming definitely offers feel-good rebranding opportunities for politicians....and is a conveniently abstract cause for those in search of personal salavation without too many strings attached [The drawing below is courtesy of the Corbalan sketchbook (that means Mauricio)...

Liberal Digest

Interestingly, Ala Plastica, the environmental artists who I visited a number of times outside Buenos Aires did not entirely contradict those sentiments. Their opinion was that ‘climate change’ policies might receive public support in rich countries that are trying to address their emissions, but was less tenable as a political topic in poorer countries struggling with unstable economic situations and hungry mouths. Even if you frame them as interconnected problems it is simply a scale and abstraction of thinking that is viewed as a luxury. At the least, my Argentine encounter complicates the common perception (in my experience) that there are those that must be converted....and then the choir.


[But in case you still want to know just how guilty you should be feeling in hard, quantifiable information, you can rate yourself with this carbon-dioxide calculator. I'll let you know once I've calculated my sins.]

‘Biffabacon’ and other distinctly Bri’ish phenomenon that have wound their way to 950 Moreno Apt 4B.

Thursday, October 12, 2006
Something bizarre. The more time I spend in Buenos Aires the more I learn about English pop culture….while my familiarity with Argentine history and politics remains motley. I only found out the name of the President last week and I know the name of one local musician (…..from the thirties). While this is not something to boast about, the reason is nonetheless intriguing - that Mauricio of m7red is an encyclopaedic expert on all things British. The content of an average conversation ranges from Princess Diana to Brick Lane to James Stirling’s sexual orientation to chavs to the Sex Pistols, the Smiths and Bloc Party. He knows that The Queen drinks Glenfiddich Whiskey and that Richard Branson went across the Channel on some kind of hydro-automobile. And his email address is an homage to ‘Biffabacon’ - the victimised teenager from Newcastle of Viz magazine. It lends a new dimension certainly to the on-going debate of whether Buenos Aires is a ‘European’ city.


When we are not discussing the intricacies of my homeland I am developing ad-hoc techniques in information overload management. A ‘flashflooding’ blog that we set up as a way to share information has morphed into a kind of open-ended ‘cyber-collaging’ experiment. Anything that is loosely connected to the phenomena of floods, complex organisations, games, co-operatives, protocols or logistics, is theoretically candidate for inclusion. What the blog is for is not very well-articulated - it has connections to the development of m7’s next iteration of the Flood! game, as well as material for a future book – but this ambiguity is turning out to be quite productive. The content and format is emerging without a described ‘plan’ and the exercise is guided by intuition as much as anything. Given a potentially endless stream of information, what material to process and how much of it? How to edit, transpose, copy/paste? What two or three themes, personalities or phenomena to wind together? How many links to follow, which fat reports to bother reading, which parts of dense books to dip into? When it goes too far in one direction (too many American academics profiled) it changes tack in another direction (translation of Spanish material about Argentine factory co-operatives currently). At risk of sounding completely abstract I feel like I am working out the river we might be on by developing a sense of where the banks are first!

An integral member of the experiment is Skype, the friendly internet software that sends links, observations and jokes between our neighbouring workspaces so that we don’t need to move - very 21st Century. I even introduced Robie to Mauricio on-line at a ‘Skype party’, complete with ‘emoticon’ pizza and cocktails! They talked about where they are from and what the weather is like, just like it might have been in ‘real life’!

My X Studio

I oscillate between peculiar on-line worlds like secondlife.com and the incredible m7 library, which is bursting with philosophy, art, urban theory, political history, gay architecture zines and primary school textbooks on the military. Some of the most entertaining encounters have been with the seventies architecture magazines which are also a useful ‘eyeopener’ for me in terms of my research project. 'Invisible London’, for example, an issue of AD from 1972, is full of material from the original ‘participation’ debate.


There are a multitude of gems including a particularly acerbic writer by the name of Jeff Nuttall who picks apart the community theatre groups that ‘keep interrupting children’s games’ and the ‘let’s-for-gods-sake-give-decent-people-a-decent-environment’ brigade for their ‘lack of eroticism’. There are also wonderful book reviews by Martin Pawley (still hovering around the UK architectural journalism scene today). Favouring a book by Robert Goodman entitled ‘After the Planners’ he quotes at length his attack on the ‘incestuous private language’ of architects which “encourages debate over the aesthetic appropriateness of a particular architectural project rather than questions about the political consequences”. Read this book, he advises, because "most tragically it makes crystal clear the dimensions of the hideous Punch and Judy show that architectural practice has become in the hands of the technological state”. Meanwhile a lengthy article on ‘Invisible London’ attempts to ‘make visible the invisible structure of the city’ in light of the fact that ‘the definitive attempt to treat the city as a physical thing is now quite discredited’. It includes beautiful thumbnail maps of airport noise levels, possible bikeways, directions of waste disposal, the subterranean city, green space distribution and graphic interpretations by Archigram.


Notes from papers delivered at a Design Participation Conference in Manchester include one on “Value theory and User Participation” which examines means of determining value in biological evolution, philosophy, economic theory, marketing research and psychology in order to help in the "direct specification of value which is the most coherent means of user participation in design”. And last but certainly not least a writer by the name of Victor Papanek poses this rather ambitious question at the end of his article on the industrial design profession: “What is an ideal human social system?” The answer apparently requires “an in-depth study of such diverse social organisations as American Plains Indians, the Mundugumor of the Lower Sepik River Basin, the Priest-cultures of the Inca, child-care in Periclean Greece, modern-day Sweden, the Catholic Church, the Loyalist Regime of Spain..(and many more)”!!

Most importantly, back in San Telmo I am re-housed! In a beautiful apartment, with beautiful artist housemates, Laura and Ignacio. A little blue bedroom in the rafters with a balcony overlooking the red kitchen…coloured glass, tall windows in the studio with shutters and a balcony overlooking the city, a cosy red sitting room, books and plants everywhere and a subtle smell of oil paint. And two crazy cats, Margot and Felipe. Ah, the joy of having a kitchen and somewhere ‘to come home to’!