There are a couple of books I’ve read over the last couple of months which I’d highly recommend, both centred on urban environmental politics, but which approach the subject in very different ways. The first is Alex Loftus’ Everyday Environmentalism: Creating an Urban Political Ecology, a more theoretically minded book which attempts to bring a number of prominent Marxist thinkers to bear on UPE. The other is Andrew Ross’ excellent Bird on Fire: Lessons from the World’s Least Sustainable City, a deep investigation into the politics of sustainability in Greater Phoenix, Arizona, where the transition to a just and sustainable meets perhaps its most intractable of urban settings. That book will be the subject of another post in a day or two, but here’s a quick synopsis of Alex Loftus’ book.
Loftus, a lecturer at Kings College London, has written a thoughtful and thoroughly useful addition to the existing literature on urban political ecology. Coming from what Roger Keil refers to as the Oxford school of UPE, Loftus, as the title suggests, wants to reformulate a nondualistic Marxist environmentalism of the everyday, one which points to the conditions of possibility for remaking our world through critical praxis. It takes as its point of departure Neil Smith’s ‘production of nature’ thesis (which can be read here), and David Harvey’s more recent writing on the co-evolution of the constituent ‘moments’ of the socio-natural totality (detailed in chapter 5 of The Enigma of Capital). Over just 136 pages he takes us on a theoretical journey to extract the explicit and implicit conceptions of nature and imminent critique of the relation to nature under capitalism, from some of the most celebrated of Marxist thinkers, devoting chapters to Smith, Marx, Lukács, Gramci and Lefebvre.
Loftus draws on Marx’s notion of sensuous activity, particularly in his early writings related to the labour process and alienation, as central to understanding relations with nature. From Lukács, and in particular out of History and Class Consciousness and the subsequent development of standpoint theory, he builds an argument for a cyborg consciousness, which centres on nondualistic subject-object interpenetrations through the production of metropolitan nature. Next the author turns to Gramsci (the subject of another collection Loftus has recently co-edited), where he is specifically interested in how consciousness can be built into a slow-burning, material force for change. The final chapter is dedicated to Lefebvre, steering us away from his problematic conceptions of nature, instead towards his cultural praxis, his cry of letting “everyday life become a work of art!” in the production of space and remaking of urban nature.
Throughout the book Loftus draws on his own empirical research on water struggles in Apartheid and post-Apartheid Inanda, South Africa and the quite different world of interventionist creative artistic practice in London. These case studies are deployed at various points in the text, most extensively in the chapter on Gramsci. For the most part, however, their use is rather piecemeal and undeveloped – almost an add-on rather than integral to the argument. On the theoretical front, I’d have to agree with Jamie Lorimer’s comments in his Area review. For a book on urban political ecology, which aims to break down nature-society binaries and looks to post-humanist approaches for inspiration, remarkably little attention is given to the independent role or agency of non-human world within the totality. Nevertheless the critical and creative engagement with such a range of Marxist thinkers is thoughtful and insightful. Many of these theorists had, at best, contradictory understandings of the relation to nature, and Loftus’ meticulous efforts to extrapolate new insights are both revealing and rewarding, and the book makes a valuable contribution to UPE.