Urban neo-miserabilism and its moral, political, and human health impacts.
Urban life is a constant grind. There is a disconnect from place and purpose. The disconnect is visible in the glazed-over eyes of people commuting to and from mind-numbing jobs—listless actors working to the script of an advanced industrial economy.
If you are bold enough to maintain eye contact, you might see your own reflection in the eyes of those disaffected commuters. A condition that evolves from prolonged exposure to the capitalist order. And the capitalist order occupies every corner of urban life.
As Fredric Jameson wrote in The Seeds of Time: “It seems to be easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism; perhaps that is due to some weakness in our imagination.”
If you’re not a worker or a consumer, you’re an afterthought
More than half the world’s population (4.2 billion people) is urbanised. Forecasts indicate that this will rise to 68 per cent (6.7 billion people) by 2050.
Urban neo-miserabilism poses a moral, political, and human health problem. It comes from being transfixed to an iPhone and reduced to the simplistic view of government that an individual’s sole purpose in life is to work and consume. If you’re not a worker or a consumer, you’re an afterthought, thus superfluous to society.
Most disconcerting is that many of us are world-weary with no idea why. Life’s meaning and direction have left us fearful of an unfriendly future. We are bolted to an urban condition that is difficult to capture in words.
Millennials and Gen Zs are more sensitive than the rest of us and feel it more. Not just because the science confirms it, but in the sense that things are not quite right.
Earth’s natural systems are collapsing
As we become more mindful of the social and ecological crises unfolding, it is clear that humankind has the dubious honour of turning a once-pristine planet into a desolate wasteland:
On February 18, 2021, the United Nations Environment Programme issued another warning that the coming decade is crucial: “Human well-being is critically dependent on Earth’s natural systems”, which are in urgent need of repair.
On February 26, 2021, a group of “eminent scientists warned that key ecosystems around Australia and Antarctica are collapsing”, and urgent action was needed.
Warnings like this appear daily, but are routinely met with a muted response.
It is now irrevocably evident that the fruits of contemporary industrial capitalism are no consolation for knowing that the finite rule of capitalism is utter depletion.
Iconic Australian writer Tim Winton placed this perfectly in context when he wrote of Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia, which is under threat from “big oil”:
“Humans yearn for places of respite, opportunities to be free from the ugly madness of the corporate world. We need to know there are still some precious sites left intact, ecosystems whose richness, scale and enduring health afford us hope for the future, even if we never get the chance to visit them ourselves. For our own sanity and honour we want to believe there are some habitats we won’t destroy, places so special they’ll never be offered up to the maw of industrialisation. Not now. Not ever.”
Eutierria: “a positive feeling of oneness with the earth”
Perhaps this is why, that every now and then, we hunger for the forest or find ourselves staring at the sea locked in a therapeutic trance. Temporary relief from the neo-miserabilism of urbanism and our eco-anxiety; and for a moment, we might even physically feel the wonder.
The Australian philosopher Glenn A. Albrecht defined this feeling with the word eutierria (from the Greek eu: good; tierra: earth; ia: belonging to): “a positive feeling of oneness with the earth and its life forces where the boundaries between self and the rest of nature are obliterated and a deep sense of peace and connectedness pervades consciousness.”
Still the environmental thuggery continues. Concrete and steel replace green fields and trees, turning humans into aliens in the natural world. Homo urbanis lives indoors in an artificial environment. He has lost all links to the seasons.
And with it, the realisation of a green modernity, once propagated by architects like Frank Lloyd Wright, Norman Foster, Renzo Piano, Ken Yeang, Jean Nouvel, and William McDonough. Humankind’s relationship with Mother Earth hangs by a thread.
The modern housing project is directionless, wearisome, and off-limits to the immiserated and marginalised
One is inclined to adopt a critical or even hostile attitude toward the modern housing project. Urban housing, like housing in suburbia, its design and purpose, is directionless, wearisome, and off-limits to the immiserated and marginalised.
The celebrated American-Canadian urban activist Jane Jacobs (1916-2006) was a legendary critic of modern urbanisation. Writing in the 1960s, she lambasted the tyrants of city hall, labelling their inane endeavours to revitalise the city as the “decadence of the new unurban urbanisation”.
Jacobs lamented the comatose civic plazas and office blocks and middle-income housing projects that were “marvels of dullness and regimentation”.
Her vision was for pedestrian-friendly places; bustling centres of vibrancy and discovery: “The ballet of the good city sidewalk never repeats itself from place to place, and in any one place is always replete with new improvisations.”
At the time, Jacobs’ critique resonated with city planners and architects alike. But much of what she advocated has succumbed to bureaucratic corruption and the capitalist ideal.
Housing unaffordability is a fact of life
Today, the urban experiment is a compromise of hardly livable areas, crippling congestion, and clusters of generic residential towers that mushroom upwards and outwards. Market forces drive environmental and planning policy.
Subsequently, the goals of green amenity and ample open space have been usurped by a more accommodating brand of poor-quality vertical sprawl—one-off green residential towers and office blocks interspersed with a well-manicured park does not a green city make.
Suburbia, similarly starved of open space, is dominated by clone-like roof-to-roof houses that spread like wildfire into farmlands and forests. Greening and canopy cover are almost non-existent where the cost of space is at a premium.
Loneliness is an emergent feature of urbanisation
Urban neo-miserabilism flourishes. Our compacted cities and housing densification have fostered profound loneliness. Estimates indicate that loneliness can shorten a person’s life by up to 15 years. In the US, almost half the population of 18-year-olds and over regularly feel lonely.
Britain was the first to appoint an official minister for loneliness in 2018. The UK has an estimated 2.6 million adults that experience loneliness “often or always”.
In February 2021, prompted by a dramatic rise in suicides, Japan appointed its first minister for loneliness. Many Japanese suffer Kodokushi, a lonely death—their bodies not discovered for many months after they have died.
Conversely, to escape the crowds, cars, congestion, noise, and pollution of the city, and the social demands of an overindustrialised society, an estimated two million Japanese shut themselves away for months on end—a psychological condition known as hikikomori.
Calls for Australia to appoint a minister for loneliness have grown louder through the COVID-19 pandemic. One in two Australians (51 per cent) over the age of 15 report feeling lonely at least one day a week. More than half of young Australians aged 12 to 25 (57 per cent) feel lonely sometimes or always.
But apathetic attitudes to critical social issues persist. Australia is a country in denial. We relegate racism to the past and climate change to the future. Other pressing issues like sexism, ageism, and mental health are purposefully relegated to the “too-hard-basket”. Loneliness is just the latest emergent feature of urban life.
There is no moral equivalent to Facebook and Twitter
Thanks to technology and the widespread use of social media, we are more connected than ever, but also lonelier and more miserable than ever.
As journalist, media host, and author Dr Julia Baird wrote in her brilliant autobiography Phosphorescence: “We all instinctively knew how destructive social media could be, even before the research confirmed it.”
We are reminded daily that there is no moral equivalent to Facebook and Twitter’s unbridled capacity to disseminate misinformation and disinformation. And through them, democracy is also compromised because we see different versions of the truth and what is untrue, leading to division and disgust.
Industrial capitalism won over social justice and eco-sanity
So what went wrong? Things went awry when the natural world was cast aside in favour of industrial capitalism. As Gandhi, the father of humankind’s conscience, foresaw in the 1930s: “Industrialism is, I am afraid, going to be a curse for mankind.”
It was inevitable that the fervent authoritarian and corporate competition—between the Left and the Right—would eventually split society down the middle. Industrial capitalism won over social justice and eco-sanity. Critics were strongarmed into submission.
The urban neo-miserabilism we now feel serves only to dispirit and immobilise collective action. Its principal consequence is passive resignation to the status quo. And the status quo exists for no other reason than our politicians wanted it that way.
But the climate crisis is changing all that. It is predicted that millions of people will perish as heatwaves intensify. Air pollution contributes to nine million premature deaths every year, mostly in heavily urbanised areas—equating to 16 per cent of all fatalities worldwide, more than is attributed to war or hunger.
Burying our heads in the sand while the tide comes in is suicide
Urban life is enervating. Under increasing socio-economic pressures and unfolding crises, our urban centres have lost their vibrancy and are losing their liveability.
Transformative action is urgently needed, but does not result from an appreciation of a crisis or a plethora of government reviews or citing statistics or the ugly trade-offs that our political leaders dole out.
Transformative action comes from deconstructing the social institutions that perpetuate systemic inequality, and replacing them with humane and ecologically-sane ones.
We might be just a cog in an overengineered industrial, technological, and social experiment. And we were duped into believing that we live in a liberal democracy. But burying our heads in the sand while the tide comes in is suicide.
Dr Stephen Dark has a PhD in Climate Change Policy and Science, and has lectured at Bond University in the Faculty of Society & Design teaching Sustainable Development and Sustainability Economics. He is a member of the Urban Development Institute of Australia and the author of the book Contemplating Climate Change: Mental Models and Human Reasoning.