Planet City: an anthropologist’s perspective

This article was written during FIBER’s Reassemble Lab Part 1: Weaving With Worlds, which took place (online) from 14 June to 27 July 2021. Under the title Weaving With Worlds, we collectively investigated the possibilities and potential of worldbuilding to give imagination to much needed planetary transformations. Our sessions ranged from crafting stories through worldbuilding eco-fiction, applying non-human ways of story development with machine learning and exploring scanning and simulation technologies used to construct characters and environments. There are many prototypes still being developed by collaborators from the lab, some of which were presented at FIBER 2021, a hybrid event which took place from October 28–30 in Amsterdam. Below, Freek van Til writes about Liam Young’s presentation of his worldbuilding project Planet City, presented during Session #6 of Weaving With Worlds.

‘Following centuries of colonisation, globalisation and never-ending economic extraction we have remade the world from the scale of the cell to the tectonic plate. In the storytelling performance Planet City we go on a science fiction safari through an imaginary city for the entire population of the earth, where 10 billion people surrender the rest of the world to a global scaled wilderness and the return of stolen lands. Set against the consistent failure of nation states to act in any meaningful way against climate change, Planet City emerges from a global citizen consensus, a voluntary and multi-generational retreat from our vast network of cities and entangled supply chains into one hyper-dense metropolis.’ (Text from Liam Young’s vimeo page)

Whilst watching the wildly imaginative, provocative and inspiring short film Planet City, many thoughts crossed my mind. Thoughts and thinking processes that ultimately turned into questions. As an anthropologist I look at the world through a cultural lens, asking questions about how practices have come to be. For instance, if an anthropologist would ‘visit’ Planet City they would start by observing certain practices like work, educational systems and transportation. What looks out of the ordinary? Why and how is something different, as opposed to what we can call ‘normal’, and to what changes in the daily lives of its inhabitants will this lead? In the case of Planet City, what would be out of the ordinary? I imagine, based on what I’ve seen in the film, a daily life that is filled with routines, schedules and one that is highly functional. How does someone who has lived a nomadic lifestyle transition to this new way of life? Think of the Tuareg people who live in the Sahara desert or the Kochi people who are herders in the Afghanistan region, would they be able to adapt and ‘fit in’? Is there a need to fit in, or would Planet City be a place where all cultures and their respective habits, beliefs and languages are accepted, tolerated and are part of a larger culture?

Stills from Liam Young’s film ‘Planet City’.

The 365-day carnival as this idea of an ever moving, ongoing cultural event in which all cultures and peoples who live together in the City are highlighted symbolises unity and collaboration, which is much needed in today’s world. And more importantly, it will function as a bridge between present differences throughout Planet City. Without it, seclusion would be a major factor, as would separation between groups. The carnival will have a bonding effect, battling a common human habit: a lack of communication. A feature strongly present in today’s society. Think about the different immigrant groups who live throughout Europe, often leading to tense relations. A large part of this issue rests in the lack of ‘getting to know one another’ and finding common grounds. It also dates back to a problem in education. If a person doesn’t learn about the history outside of their own geographical environment, and later on in life encounters someone from an unknown place, that person will see that someone as ‘the other’. This may lead to hostility, ignorance and/or separation. If not dealt with, a society will become divided. Along with the carnival, the organisation of education should be an important part of Planet City.

Image from Liam Young’s ‘Planet City’, courtesy of the artist

Another question that might be raised by an anthropologist wandering through the City is ‘How will living further away from nature lead to a better relationship with nature?’. At the centre of this question lies the nature/culture divide which is hugely debated as part of what lies at the heart of the problems in the Anthropocene. Many scholars, like Murray Bookchin and Donna Haraway, are calling for the ending of the nature/culture divide as an important part of humanity decentralizing itself. What the nature/culture divide basically entails is the wish of humans to be rid of the dependence and cruelty of nature. To stand above it and the ability to dominate and form nature as we wish. In this process humans have drifted away from the natural world, its ecosystems and all of its knowledge, and as a result we are no longer connected. In a way we are no longer able to communicate with nature the way we used to. Take trees for instance, do you still see faces, spirits, knowledge or living creatures in trees or do you see a tree as part of a long production train which means wood, fuel and furniture? Many see the way we live, and especially how we live, as a contributing factor to the nature/culture divide. A solution, as can be seen throughout the world, is living differently. Changing our destructive pattern to become more connected to the natural world once again. The ending of the nature/culture divide means coming back to living alongside nature, being dependent on the ecosystems in our environment and taking care and being taken care of by nature.

Iewan ecovillage, Netherlands (image by Freek van Til)

The world Liam Young invisions in Planet City holds much resemblance to a world I recently visited, the ecovillage world. Throughout the world small, dedicated ecovillages arise with the purpose to change our current way of living and impose a new mindset. One in which we take care of our environment, use less energy and create or maintain ecosystems. At the moment there are around 4,000 ecovillages, says Global Ecovillage Network (GEN). Each village has its own ecosystems, technical systems, beliefs and practices that are designed for the environment the inhabitants live in. These villages are no longer part of massive economical production lines, which are destructive and abusive. Instead they live with what they are provided with from their own region. Imagine for a second that all of these ecovillages are connected and working together. A network of dedicated villages with their own expertise, products, skills and knowledge. Some smaller, some larger, depending on the area they operate from. Linked by a public transport system that operates on roads which generate surface energy and fuels the vehicles. Bigger facilities like hospitals, libraries, universities and research centres are located at ecocities, lying at the heart of each region and posed as a hub. People will live from the products that come with the seasons, meaning less transport and energy on storage facilities. Plus, and from my own research this is perhaps the big one, living closer to nature leads to building a relationship with your environment. Inhabitants from ecovillages I interviewed spoke of a different understanding of nature, they felt closer to nature, and less close to the outside world of massive economics and destructiveness. Their nature/culture divide has clearly faded and is instead replaced with a loving, caring, but also dependent relationship with nature.

Image by Freek van Til
On the grounds of ecovillage ‘Iewan’ stands a large Oak. When I’m walking through the village with one of the villagers, with whom I’m in conversation about several aspects of ecological life, I suddenly spot the many ribbons with all sorts of colors hanging from the tree. “What is the meaning behind these ribbons?”, I ask. My interviewee tells the story of a villager who got seriously ill shortly after the opening of the ecovillage and died not long after. In memory of the woman, children of the village hung up ribbons, also as a reminder of the fact that this woman was always making and repairing clothes and fabrics. It’s a colorful ornamentation hanging in the towering Oak, that seems to overarch the village. In later conversations, walks and during activities, the Oak remained a recurring theme. Each villager has their own special connection to the tree which they like to share, and this shows me as an outsider a kind of kinship that I’m beginning to see is a typical aspect of the life of this community. In my view, this sort of kinship, with the amount of care and love for this tree, is at odds with our current society in which nature comes second and doesn’t receive the same amount of care as it gets in this little ecovillage. Without the Oak, no ribbons. Without ribbons, no colorful memory to a fellow villager. The natural dimension in a community can be as simple as a centrally situated Oak. An ever present actor to which every individual holds a special relationship, a story to tell or a silent manner to feel connected to nature. It comprises a situation in which nature is visibly present in the lives of humans who have decided to live differently than the current norm in the western world. (Image and words by Freek van Til)

I wonder, however, how people inside Planet City will change their relationship with nature. Nature, outside of the City, far away, may become a distant utopia. As seen by ecovillages, inhabitants get closer to nature by working with nature. It will be interesting to think how this process will be integrated in the City. Knowing it is both imaginative and visual with a purpose to keep us reaching for a better world, Planet City works as a guideline for our own world. Much like the ecovillage world, it isn’t realistic nor doable. Yet, it has to be discovered and, perhaps, in time it will result in change. If, one day, we return to the world and leave the City, what will humanity have learned from its time in the City? Will it look differently at untamed nature and all its ecosystems? Will we have changed our mindset, our connection with both each other and the natural world? Hopefully, humanity will live in harmony, a world in which the cultural and natural world are at a balance.

Written by: Freek van Til

Edited by: Rhian Morris

How does a community with all its quirks, originalities and dedicated activities come to be and how and why does it change? It’s one of the main questions Freek van Til investigates as a cultural anthropologist. This question is rooted in Freek’s travels. The very first of which was to a small Berber village deep in the Sahara desert far away from civilization, where culture seemed more important than bureaucratic laws. Curiousity paved the way to more journeys with different cultures and their own ways of living as destinations. Ultimately it led to studying anthropology and development studies at the Radboud University in The Netherlands, where Freek is currently a master student focusing on ecological lifestyles and the ecovillage movement.

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