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An article from Do or Die Issue 7. In the paper edition, this article appears on page(s) 147-148.

Review: Concrete Jungle

Concrete Jungle
Edited by Mark Dion and Alexis Rockman

Juno Books, 1996
ISBN 0-9651042-2-2
Picture

Frog spaniel: an insectivorous for ponds and other aquatic habitats.

Concrete Jungle bills itself as a "pop media investigation of death and survival in urban ecosystems", an apt summation of the content of this excellent book.

Its premise is that "the whole idea of nature as something separate from human experience is a lie. Humans and nature construct one another. Ignoring that fact obscures the one way out of the current environmental crisis - a living within and alongside of nature without dominating it." (p.6) Thankfully, it avoids falling into the fashionable post-modern trap of seeing nature as entirely socially constructed (cf. "Uncommon Ground: Towards Reinventing Nature", Ed. William Cronon, Norton 1996) - the hugely arrogant notion that nature has no independent existence or meaning, other than that which humanity ascribes to it.

As the editors of Concrete Jungle say, "the idea of the social construction of Nature does not mean to obliterate the obvious fact that there is a reality upon which we can all agree." (p.6) However, they also point out that animals "are often ciphers bearing our own anxieties, fantasies and assumptions about ourselves and the natural world." (p.8) In an extremely stimulating interview in the book, Professor Andrew Ross argues that 'Nature' is the ultimate alibi [1], a 'tabula rasa' which "can always be wheeled in to ventriloquise support for a social claim about environmental matters... Nature cannot speak for itself, but everyone else is all too willing to do the job." (p.18/19) Being such a malleable concept, it can be turned to almost anyone's advantage - thus, tragically, "environmental security provides a doctrinal framework for the Pentagon's new global mission after the Cold War... the masters of the New World Order are learning how to use [ecology]." (p.21/22) In a telling aside, Ross terms this: "the Greening of the military, or if you like, the militarisation of the Greens" (p.21). [2]

In a world increasingly determined by image and representation (the "information war"), one of the most crucial tasks must be to address "how this symbolic use of animals impacts in very real ways on the ecology of the Alaskan tundra or the river front valley." (p.8) Perhaps the issue is not so much the social construction of nature but of 'environmentalism' - and the feedback loop (or 'dialectic') that then furnishes us with the 'nature' that we desire, or deserve. To digress, an example from a study which revealed the connection between your political views and the state of your garden: "The yards of conservatives were neater and more orderly, and their owners spent more time on tidying-up activities... Liberals, on the other hand, worked harder on nurturing activities such as watering and fertilising, and had a greater diversity of vegetation." [3] Concrete Jungle's mission is to explore these impacts and connections, a challenge that - irrespective of the theoretical baggage outlined above - it carries off in a "very real" and literally down-to-earth way.

It brings an inquisitive eye to bear on the obscured detritus of the urban ecosystem; those opportunistic 'r-selected' species - eg. rats, pigeons, cockroaches, (in London, the grimy mice scurrying beneath the Underground tracks) - which thrive in the interstices of the city despite being almost universally shunned by humanity: a testament to irrepressible life, reappropriating hostile terrain.

It is a sad reflection that in our alienated obsession with wilderness, or untainted 'true' nature, urban environmentalists have tended to avert their gaze from that most fertile ground, our own backyard - the domain in which the human/nature interface is often at its most intense. [4] But this seems peripheral, even invisible, on the radar of our concerns. (Richard Mabey's "Flora Britannica" is particularly good on this relationship between people and place - one of "collective mutual ownership" [5]. Plants are internalised into culture through language and folklore, people (especially children) inhabit and redefine the most unlikely and fleeting spaces of urban 'wasteground' [6]).

Concrete Jungle in fact goes one better, and devotes a queasy but mesmerising chapter to that which is 'closer to home' than anything else: the human body as habitat. This is one of the great taboo subjects, not fit for polite conversation (and all the more fascinating because of that!) - perhaps because it is an uncomfortable reminder "of our part in the biological contract... that we, like all animals, are part of a complex web of relations that is not always in our favour." (p.8)

If I have made this book sound a little po-faced and ponderously theoretical, nothing could be further from the truth. It is, as advertised, emphatically a 'pop media' approach to this rich and complex subject. Produced by one half of the old Re/Search team (responsible for the brilliant "Pranks") it remains true to their trademark sassy and eclectic sensibility. I'm delighted that they've finally turned their open-minded and playful attentions to ecology - calling upon an amazingly diverse range of contributors: from the zoo manager who despises zoos, the sanitation engineer's grisly tales of New York's underbelly (the sewer infrastructure and its residents), forensic pathologists, artists, 'pest' exterminators, road-kill recipe chefs (hilarious, and probably delicious - 'freeganism', anyone?), and many more. There are a million tales in the naked city, so they say, and a good number of them are here. It is hard to imagine an earnest green (or any other 'single discipline') approach yielding such fresh perspectives.

One other very positive feature of Concrete Jungle is the way it keeps you guessing; if there is such a thing as the 'Truth', it is a lot more subtle and elusive than we might comfortably like to think. Hence a contributor who luridly demonises rats is succeeded by excerpts from a rat enthusiast newsletter. Likewise, there is an informative and upsetting run-down of the disastrous consequences of introduced species around the world. This is juxtaposed with "The Mania for Native Plants in Nazi Germany", which reminds us of the existence of 'Nazi landscape gardening' (!) - including the Reich Landscape Law, which sought to "forbid the use of foreign plants in German landscapes". (p.67) A lot of the pieces in this book that at first seem obscure unexpectedly take on a much greater significance - in this case, as an illustration of the terrifying ease with which a passion to preserve the local can tip over into repressive xenophobia: fascism and pluralism vying for supremacy in the German garden. (The spectre of 'green' fascism still haunts us to this day. [7])

This example also brings us full circle - "Humans and nature construct one another". People invoke the authority of the most expedient version of 'nature', whichever reflects and reinforces their ideologies and practices. EF! is in this game - so too was Kropotkin, his "Mutual Aid" a riposte to the cuthroat 'Nature' of Social Darwinism.

This is an excellent book, crammed full of more juicy anecdotes than I have space for here. But here's a little taster, especially for our 'nation of animal lovers': "The voracious eating of the dead by household cats and dogs is well-known. The soft tissues of the face and head are preferred, sometimes to the degree that decapitation occurs... Another frequent cadaveric target for rodents and pets is the genitalia, particularly the penis and the scrotum... In reports of such feastings by pets, it is often emphasised that no other food sources were available. To the contrary is the following story told... by an emergency services technician: at a house to which he had been dispatched to check on a woman who had not been seen by neighbours for some time, the technician was greeted enthusiastically by a small white poodle. The woman was found dead on the kitchen floor, much of her face defleshed. A bowl filled with dog food sat only several feet from the owner's body." (p.134)

Notes

  1. As Oscar Wilde might have said, " 'Nature' is the last refuge of the scoundrel".
  2. See also the material on the so-called 'environment industry' in Dead Trees EF!'s reprint of Fifth Estate's "Revolution Against the Mega-Machine".
  3. "Lawn Study Offers Political Fodder", National Geographic April 1989.
  4. See also: "This Car Stops for Road-Kill", Concrete Jungle p.177-180.
  5. "West Papua - Plunder in Paradise", Indigenous Peoples and Development Series Report No.6, Anti-Slavery Society 1990, p.12.
  6. "Flora Britannica", Richard Mabey, Sinclair-Stevenson 1996 - eg. the steel industry-dependent figs of the River Don, Sheffield (p.66-67), and the Japanese Knotweed ("bambarb") forests used by Bristol children (p.108). See also "Tree of Heaven", "Concrete Jungle" p.70.
  7. See: "Eco-Fascism: Lessons from the German Experience", Janet Biehl and Peter Staudenmaier, AK Press ?, and "Swamp Fever, Primitivism and the Ideological Vortex….", David Watson, Fifth Estate Fall 1997.

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