Today I held my final lecture in Urban Economics (Econ 155). For many students, it is my last opportunity to make some small, lasting imprint on their futures. What will I say?
Mike Davis’ Dead Cities (2002) and its final chapter, “Strange Times Begin,” would appear to offer the perfect opportunity to say something important: hermaphrodite polar bears, ice storms, dust storms, and aquatic dead zones.
We began the semester fifteen weeks ago examining the production function and how it helped give rise to the modern city. The ancient city emerged 10,000 years ago, when the few — the olig– — successfully requisitioned the labor, arms, productive and reproductive capabilities of the hoi polloi — the many — sufficiently to form cities. And, yet, as of 1800 still only 3 per cent of the world’s total population was urban. By 1900, that had increased to 14 per cent. Only in 2010 did the percentage of individuals living in urban areas surpass the percentage of those living in rural. (We now stand at a vertiginous 70 per cent urbanization.)
The production function measures the quantity of goods produced divided by the hours producing these goods. It has been steadily increasing ever since the 14th century: more stuff with fewer inputs. But investors aim less at “more stuff” than at more value. And this is the rub. I know when I have eaten too much. But when do I know that my capital has earned too much? The growth function is implicit within the capitalist social form: to not grow is to die. Only enterprises that enjoy political protection thrive without growing. Which is why cities, those hubs of innovation, have expanded so prodigiously over the past century. And, yet, they are the leading triggers in the cascade of extreme climactic events rattled off in Mike Davis’ narrative.
The irony is that nearly all of my students place their hopes in the production function to save us from impending systemic catastrophe. By producing more with less, we will be saved. Really?
More what? Let us replace the Q (change in quantity) with health, education, leisure time, good food and wine, music, and art. Let us suggest that MPL (the marginal product of labor) is not measured in consumer goods divided by labor time, but by the time I spend with friends in good health over a good meal.
Over the last half century we have transferred the efficiencies won by capital and labor to the top of the income hierarchy, to families whose leisure time, education, health, and security are so prolific that their only outlet is to extend their families’ wealth into the infinite future. But, let us imagine a regulatory framework in which these efficiencies are transferred back down to those who produce them. And let us imagine a world where the productivity of labor and capital is measured not in fortunes of the 1 %, but in the health I enjoy, the time I spend with my children, the music I enjoy, the food I enjoy, and the hours I spend learning about my world.
On the one hand, what I am proposing is impossible. For it requires that we completely shift how we evaluate what we desire. On the other hand, it is completely conceivable. For it invites us to organize around the values we already embrace: family, health, learning, music, art, nature.
If we measure Q not in terms of abstract value, but in terms of the substantive goods we have reason to value, there is a path from here to there; a path from the production function to sustainability.
As librarians and lecturers — as human beings engaged in productive, meaningful action — we need to reflect more critically upon why we engage our minds and bodies in these specific ways. Are we aiming for this future — this sustainable future? Or are we preparing for catastrophe?