Foreword

Neil Smith

When we eventually look back at the intellectual shibboleths of the high capitalist period—say the last three centuries—few ingrained assumptions will look so wrongheaded or so globally destructive as the common-sense separation of society and nature. Historically and geographically, most societies have avoided such a stark presumption as hubristic folly, but from physicists to sociologists, physicians to poets, the brains of the ascendant capitalist "west" not only embraced but made a virtue of society's separation from nature (and vice versa). Scientists studied a natural world, conceptually ripped from any social context except that human bodies, like "natural" ones, were just as subject to the laws of gravity or bio-chemistry; social scientists sought laws of society that didn't defy laws of nature but by exclusion assumed such laws meaningless to social questions; the best poets and artists saw humanity and nature mirrored in each other— separate enough to require a creative inferno of reconnection. In time the destructiveness of this deep-seated presumption of society separated from nature will become fully and tragically apparent; quite when this will occur depends very much on the fate of the capitalist globalism that not only fostered such a grotesque fiction but raised it almost to the level of species instinct and profited so extraordinarily from it.

Capitalism is the appropriate focus here not because capitalist societies are unique in positing such a separation. Quite the contrary. Many past and present societies recognize a disjuncture of nature and society, as in Cicero's belief more than two thousand years ago that cities really represent a "second nature", but Cicero was the perceptive exception to a general rule of early Greek thought that saw nature, society and the spiritual world as an irrevocable amalgam. His "second nature" was triumphalist in part, recognizing an increasing social power to separate itself from nature, but any celebration was circumscribed by a parallel sense that the social world was itself part of (a second) nature. In the crude materialist evolutionism of the nineteenth century, "man" continuously fought nature and separated himself from it as a means of controlling the "external" world. If that progressive vision is much too crude and teleological, there is nonetheless a sense in which the expansion of capitalist technology has accomplished a very real if limited separation of society from various natural constraints and in ways more aggressive and complete than any previous social formation. So when Marx, to some extent Hegel, and certainly the Frankfurt School of social theorists pick up Cicero's language of a second nature, the triumphalism is muted in favour of an angst about the fate of nature. "Capitalism", warned Frankfurt School theorists Adorno and Horkheimer on the eve of the atomic bomb, "is a massive racket in nature".

In observing such a discrete separation of society from nature, capitalist societies are the oddity. They have historically depended on a rampant objectification of nature, centred on the abstraction and globalization of wage labour in multifold forms. Capitalist societies externalize nature to an unprecedented extent (even as they internalize it in the commodity form). The intellectual conundrum in the Enlightenment was not to explain the entwinement of nature and society, therefore, but the opposite, namely to explain their supposed separation. If nature was to be ground into commodity form, its supposed externality was what had to be explained; it is much easier to rationalize the profit-driven rape of earth and body alike if that nature is objectified. The exploitation of nature did not begin with capitalism but it did become deepened, generalized and dramatically intensified during this period in human history. Enlightenment thinkers from Newton to Kant, Adam Smith to Montesquieu—and many others—answered the demand to understand the externality of nature. This is neither to diminish their contributions necessarily, nor to cast aspersions on their accomplishments, but it is to contextualize the ideological power that their contributions came to have. In many ways, the stunning question today—still almost unaskable—is not how to reconcile nature and society, how to understand the "interaction" of nature and society—the agenda of most in the environmental movement—but how western ideologies could have got to the point of flattering themselves so successfully that they were somehow separate from nature. Such a widespread "discourse" of separateness is thoroughly embedded in the capitalist universalization of wage labour; under wage labour not only is the raw material externalized but so too is the human potential to work. The environmental movement is not immune to this but generally complicit: the "interaction" of society and nature only makes sense if society and nature are conceived from the start as separate.

Such a powerful shibboleth inevitably conjures forth its opposite, and for all the externalization of nature binding social production to western ideologies, there is a parallel historical narrative emphasizing the oneness or universality of "man and nature". The contemporary environmental movement, especially in its ecological guise, may best embody this response. This of course poses an acute contradiction—nature is external to society yet united with it—and it is a contradiction that is highly generalized in contemporary western thought. The physicist may be a poet while the artist surely believes in the objectivity of gravity. The environmental movement actually embodies this contradiction too, variously worshipping or wanting a universal nature yet seeking to manage it as an object. American presidents now routinely claim to be environmentalists even while they open the Alaskan wilderness to "environmentally friendly" oil conglomerates. Little wonder that even environmentalist insiders now admit what socialists, radicals and anarchists have long concluded, namely that the mainstream environmental movement is dead, co-opted by the very capitalist power it once tried to fight, reincarnated as little more than green capitalism.

The left response has been varied. Some have reverted to the NGOs. Others—myself included—have stuck with academia where our voice is relatively untrussed but equally unheard. Still others have bravely struggled in environmental justice organizations, many others in unions; many of us struggle on several political fronts. As the mainstream environmental movement has been tamed, more radical voices have often resuscitated a certain apocalypticism. Peak oil! Societal collapse! Global warming! Population explosion! Natural disaster! Tsunami! Ecology of fear! War and famine! We are killing nature, is the message, and soon nature is going to exact its revenge. Without diminishing the various threats involved, I think an apocalyptic response plays into the ideological separation between nature and society that an oppositional politics needs to challenge. It also severely underestimates the ability of capitalist societies to adjust to problems of their own making, and make a profit along the way. This is not to say that capitalism is infinitely self-correcting but that it does have an extraordinary adaptability even in the face of crises of its own making. Capitalism can be quite nature-friendly in its own interests and on its own terms—witness the multi-billion dollar "natural foods" or recycling industries. We are all environmentalists now—who is not for "sustainability"?—and we will underestimate the adaptability of capitalism at our peril.

The genius of the present volume is precisely this recognition. The idea of a metabolism with nature has roots in nineteenth- and twentieth-century social thought, especially Marx. It simultaneously problematizes the relationship with nature and refuses the knee-jerk apocalypticism that marks so much left environmental response today. For Marx, it is not a question of understanding how nature and society interact; rather the point is that nature is incomprehensible except as mediated by social labour, and consequently there has to be a rethinking that posits labour as central to nature. This flies directly in the face of either an external notion of nature, which excludes labour, or a universalist notion which broadly refuses labour as the nexus of society and nature.

The notion of metabolism sets up the circulation of matter, value and representations as the vortex of social nature. But, as the original German term, "Stoffwechsel", better suggests, this is not simply a repetitive process of circulation through already established pathways. Habitual circulation there certainly is, but no sense of long-term or even necessarily short-term equilibrium. Rather "Stoffwechsel" expresses a sense of creativity in much the same way that Benjamin talks about mimesis: the metabolism of nature is always already a production of nature in which neither society nor nature can be stabilized with the fixity implied by their ideological separation. Society is forged in the crucible of nature's metabolism, for sure, but nature is equally the amalgam of simmering social change. So much is human production, "this unceasing sensuous labour and creation...the basis of the whole sensual world as it now exists", Marx once wrote in a polemic against Feuerbach, "that were it interrupted for only a year" not only would there be "an enormous change in the natural world", but Feuerbach would "soon find that the whole world of men and his own perceptive faculty, nay his own existence, were missing".

Sundered apart, nature and society die in reciprocal conceptual torpor. The ideology of separate and distinct social and natural spheres therefore begs the question: for what purpose? What social work does this dualism do? There are many layers to an answer, but most simply, the positing of an external nature rationalizes and justifies the unprecedented exploitation of nature (human cum non-human), the "massive racket" that capitalism, historically and geographically, represents.

Political ecology provides a powerful means of cracking the abstractions of this discussion about the metabolism or production of nature. Rooted in social and political theory it is also grounded in ecology and has an international scope. When complemented by an environmental justice politics, which is less internationally focused and less theoretical but more politically activist in inspiration, political ecology becomes a potent weapon for comprehending produced natures.

While all of these ideas have come together powerfully in the last two decades or more, they are only now being applied explicitly to urban nature. If they are going to have theoretical and political traction, however, these ideas need to be tested in the most produced nature of all, and that means the city. The production of urban nature is deeply political but it has also received far less scrutiny and seems far less visible, precisely because the arrangement of asphalt and concrete, water mains and garbage dumps, cars and subways seems so inimical to our intuitive sense of (external) nature. Whatever our analytical sophistication, the idea of nature as a contrivance still cuts deeply and sharply against our most engrained and peculiar prejudices. In the Nature of Cities helps open up this new territory and it will help to create a new structure of feeling connecting nature and the city. Radically new ideas are by definition discomfiting: only later do they seem "natural".

This book should therefore be read as a search. It is a search for ways to articulate a creative politics of nature in, of and for the city. The emphasis on urban metabolism represents a sober recognition of the power of capitalist productions of nature while winkling them open at points of opportunity for radical, even revolutionary, change. It broadly rejects the apocalyptic "death" of nature in recognition of the fact that, however perversely, societies make the natural environment they live in, to a lesser or greater degree, although not of course under conditions of their own choosing. It is therefore a search too for political possibilities. Nature is manifestly not dead but is incessantly reproduced—in ways we may detest or we may love. Nor is environmentalism dead, despite the belated recognition by some among the mainstream environmental movement that they have motored themselves to the end wall of their own political cul-de-sac.

A dialectic is at work here. As part of a broader political movement, an urban political ecology can help integrate a politics of nature into a more established "social" politics; at the same time an ecologically enhanced politics focusing on the productive metabolism of nature can further exoticize the absurd separation of nature and society while denying any anti-social universalism of nature. In the bigger picture, seeing the world so differently—outside the prism of capitalist nature—requires both analytical and poetic exploration. But insofar as the landscapes we create refract back to us a very powerful naturalization of the social assumptions that sculpted such landscapes in the first place, a revolution in our thinking may be intimately bound up with a revolution in how these landscapes are made. Seeing the world differently probably depends on making a different world from which the world itself can be seen differently.

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