What is habitable space? At the surface level, it’s a rather vague question that could take you in any direction. In some ways, understanding the concept of habitable space is fundamental to human existence, encompassing various aspects across time, place, and culture. For me, I often find myself returning to the works of Lewis Mumford who begins with the question: “What is a City?” In the works of Mumford, he expands much upon both what the city is but also critically discusses what it should be. Drawing inspiration from Lewis Mumford’s exploration of cities and their potential, this reflection examines the implications of a green transition from petrochemicals for the future of urban spaces, with a particular focus on South Africa.
Reframing Transition: Challenging Dualistic Thinking
While preparing for the PhD course in Paris this April, I started thinking about what a green transition from petrochemicals might entail. I thought deeply about the promises of increased ecological and bodily well-being in urban spaces and what that future might look like. I came to understand that critiquing the divide between mind and matter, as well as society and nature is essential in re-evaluating the assumptions and promises associated with the concept of transition. Insights from existential and phenomenological philosophers like Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Jean-Paul Sartre highlight the connection between the human body and the world. This anthropological perspective exposes the limitations of viewing nature as a mere resource and encourages a more holistic understanding of habitability. Notable works like Leslie Green’s “Rock|Water|Life” and Julie Livingston’s “Self-Devouring Growth” offer intriguing perspectives on the ecological degradation in Southern Africa, illustrating the consequences of dualistic thinking.
The Material Dimension: Chemical Burdens and Respiratory Illness
As I put together my course presentation, I was confronted with the question of what my contribution to these debates would be, given my doctoral research on respiratory illness. Examining the material implications of green practices is crucial, especially concerning respiratory illnesses like asthma. As we strive for greener activities, it is vital to align our tools and technologies with sustainability principles and respond to urgent signals from nature, such as climate change. In Senegal, they are afraid that the sardines will disappear with warming waters in the coming decades.
However, the shift to renewable energy sources introduces a substantial chemical burden. The production of solar panels involves the use of chemicals such as cadmium, arsenic, and silica, the mining of which, particularly in South Africa, has been associated with respiratory illnesses among workers like silicosis. This is an area our project Habitable Air is researching in South Africa, led by postdoctoral fellow Kefiloe Sello. Additionally, the extensive land use required for renewable technologies raises concerns about potential land disputes and dispossessions.
Rethinking Green Transition: A Paradigm Shift
Reimagining green transition requires a fundamental shift in our perception of nature and our role within it. Therefore, when considering the challenges of constructing habitable spaces in the face of difficulties encountered even by renewable energy initiatives such as the ongoing breach of human rights for the reindeer-herding Sámi people in the Fosen wind park case in Norway, we can turn to the insights of Lewis Mumford and his concept of “biotechnics.” Biotechnics involves developing ecologically sensitive and attuned technologies that work in harmony with nature, emphasising a deep understanding and appreciation of the world.
Rather than viewing nature as a mere resource waiting to be exploited, a biotechnics approach offers an alternative perspective. Martin Heidegger’s insights further reinforce the importance of revealing the world as it truly is, rather than imposing an exploitative perspective. This approach challenges the ecologically insensitive practices associated with petrochemicals and sets the foundation for constructing habitable spaces through sustainable and responsible means. Unfortunately, many current renewable projects follow an ecologically insensitive path, reminiscent of the detrimental practices associated with petrochemicals.
The paper I presented during the course highlighted a crucial aspect within the discourse of green transition: the prevailing perception of nature as a mere resource, despite acknowledging that we depend on it for essential needs like clean air and water. This perspective becomes evident in the chemical composition of many renewable technologies, which often prove harmful to the environment and pose risks to human health. The toxicity associated with these technologies has the potential to cause bodily harm, particularly for individuals with respiratory illnesses and others. It underscores the need for a more holistic approach to sustainability that addresses both ecological and human well-being.
In conclusion, constructing habitable spaces within a green transition necessitates a comprehensive transformation of our thinking and actions. By challenging dualistic paradigms, recognising the interconnectedness of humanity and nature, and acknowledging the chemical burdens of renewable technologies, we can shape a more sustainable future. Embracing the principles of biotechnics offers a way forward, where technology aligns with ecological sensitivity and respects the inherent value of nature. We must depart from the ecologically insensitive approaches of the past and embark on a journey towards creating habitable spaces that prioritise the well-being of both humans and the environment.