Fear of Flying

Iceland's Eyjafjallajoekull volcano hasn't given up disrupting north Atlantic air travel this summer, but what if it's the harbinger of something bigger?

The global city is predicated on face to face communication being essential to major business deals. But the global city model, originally outlined by my colleague Saskia Sassen, is almost twenty years old. Trying booting up your Powerbook 100 to read this blog post. In this post I'd like to speculate on the impact of the volcano, technology, and global warming on the global city.  

First, let's talk global warming and green hype. During the last decade, friendly but misguided green advocates have advocated pedestrian-oriented cities as environmentally-sound alternatives to the suburbs. But looking at America (and many countries in Europe aren't all that different from this), most cities have seen sustained and uninterrupted declines in the last half century. The starring exceptions are the global city of various scales: New York, Chicago, Boston, LA, San Francisco and so on. For the most part, these cities have seen a remarkable renaissance as centers of business and creative activity. The urbanites who live here live in the global city, thinking nothing of jetting from London to Shanghai and alighting in San Francisco. Often, these individuals literally inhabit the global city and owning pied-à-tierres on multiple continents is increasingly as common among the super-wealthy as owning an estate is. At home, the "creative class" practices localism religiously, probably out enjoying home-smoked bacon cupcakes and carbon-neutral triple-pulled ristrettos right now.  

But the idea that this kind of life—which is as predicated on consumption as existence in deepest suburbia—is environmentally sound is laughable. Apart from the manic rate of conspicuous consumption in the global city, flying one mile on an airplane produces almost  as much CO2 as driving that same mile by oneself in an automobile (other side effects, including polluting in the very thin atmosphere high-up may be much worse). Moreover, if an average driver in the United States drives some 12,000 miles a year, that's half of what you need to get into a frequent flyer club.

I think by now you get the picture: the high-flyer of the global city is much worse for the environment than the suburbanite. So much for sustainable living. 

Now back to the volcano. The impact it's had on transatlantic travel has been massive as planes continue to be grounded in one European country or another multiple times a week. Pollution-wise, the amount of CO2 it released is significantly less than the amount of CO2 that would have been produced by the Airbuses and Boeings that happened not to fly on those days (obviously, the volcano also released other pollutants, many of which are quite toxic to life). Business travel had already dropped as a result of the recession. The volcano is a wake-up call. If my business relied on frequent international travel for face-to-face meetings, I'd begin asking myself how sustainable this is from an economic standpoint and how vulnerable my business was to such disruptions.   

There's more to the story. As I stated earlier, we're far from the day of the Powerbook 100, which couldn't even browse the Web. 70% of stock market trades now take place between computers at millisecond-level speeds. I have a hunch that the face-to-face financial deals that used to drive the global financial markets are becoming less important economically. 

Let's put this all together then. A perfect storm is emerging. Far from the idea that the suburbs will collapse in Richard Florida's great reset, it is likely the global city that collapses, replaced by ubiquitous high-speed telecommunications and undone by changing climatological conditions, not to mention peak oil.

Make no mistake, I'm not offering up a new utopia of any sort here. What I'm predicting is an end to network culture as we know it and it won't be pretty. The coming collapse of the global city will be slow and brutal, accompanied by the stationary state that Gopal Balakrishnan described last year.

I don't see many easy solutions out there. Ironically, the best bet is probably the very scare-word the American right loves to deploy: socialism. Now it's unlikely to take hold in the US, at least not for a generation or two but some countries will probably get the drift and head in that direction. What gets us out of this morass and what form of global spatial organization replaces the global city is unclear. Still, the late, great global city was far from equitable or sustainable. We can hardly lament its passing.  



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too long

my response is so long it became a post. you can find it here.

Some responses.

Hi Ana Maria,

In general, I agree with your post. A points of clarification regarding suburbanites vs. the creative class and global travel:

Castells points out that global travel is part of the space of flows, the spatial-ideological underpinning of the network society (remember those terms "cosmoplitans" or "jet set"?). Much has changed since the time he wrote that—and one of my points in the above post is to suggest that—but that hasn't yet. I bold "yet" and I agree with you, that there are vastly different forms of habitation beyond the largely homogeneous bounds of the global city. The future is now there. 

My concern is that the newest ideologists of urban thinking—particularly in the field of urban systems, emerging urbanism, networked urbanism, or whatever you want to call it—are still very much operating with the mentality of a small jetsetting elite that, as you point out, is disconnected from the world around them. For them, the suburb is the enemy and yet, they live lives that are in many ways much more consumption oriented and much more damaging for the environment than that of those they decry. Their ideology is inseparable from global travel and the world they dream of is very much a world that is there for them, opened up to transparency for them. Indeed, its an ideological construction around the idea that the city is the realm of mobility and maybe that's the problem right there. 

Moreover, and this is my other point in the above post, is that the construction of the global city is not some great urban renaissance, it's the spatial manifestation of the financial élite. Should that change—and my prediction is that it will—say goodbye to the global city and with it, the cultural-ideological apparatus that accompanies it.     

Finally, for me, the existence of pirate book sites is the only reason that I bought the iPad (and yes, at least one of my books can be found on them). Yes, it's much more compelling. But we're not supposed to talk about that much, at least not in public. ;)



*I'm not going to pull apart these two. Urban leaders have now firmly embraced the creative class. 


yes but

agreed--but what i'm trying to emphasize here is that currently, cities are not only the spatial manifestation of the financial elite. there is also the powerful spatial presence of the masses [how else to call them] which just in terms of sheer numbers have consequences on the form of the city-suburb aggregation [which is ultimately symbiotic]. that is why i don't see your prediction as such, but more as something that has already taken place in other cities around the world, but needs to be looked at more closely.

ps. not ana! ana maria.

Indeed, I suppose that I'm to

Indeed, I suppose that I'm to blame for not shifting the paradigm enough. It's just that I'm getting so despondent over what passes as cutting-edge urbanism. I think the key would be to dump the term "suburbs" once and for all. They don't just don't exist except as a state of mind among urbanists. But since right now the ideological thrust is toward a high-tech creative class that is somehow green as a supposed counter to the bad, oil-consuming suburbs, it's the windmill I'm tilting against. 

ps. fixed!


[...] Found via Kazys Varnelis recent post on  the the Fear of Flying and on how the disruptions caused by Iceland’s Eyjafjallajoekull volcano might be a harbinger of something bigger… Read (here) [...]