Material culture, considered (harmful?)

Designer, maker and writer Hillary Predko's "Kipple Field Notes" is five short essays on the nature of stuff in the 21st century, its relationship to justice, the environment, cities, intergenerational strife, housing, and geopolitics.

It's my kind of thing, acknowledging the pleasures and desirability of physical things without excusing the environmental and human consequences of their creation, use, and disposal. It doesn't require that you forsake the pleasures of stuff, nor the dream of living in a decent home, nor a life with sufficient leisure to play and make -- but it does insist that you think about the lives of people who make the things we use, the costs of those things' long lives after we discard them, and the great forces that are changing our cities into investment vehicles that incidentally shelter people if the absolutely must.

Predko builds her argument around the city of Toronto, where I grew up, and the changes to that city are very vivid for me, so these essays were especially sharp for me, but she also writes beautifully about Shenzhen, a city I barely know, and manages to be just as compelling.

Heavy industry is disappearing from sight in cities like Toronto, wealthy cities with service economies. The renovated factories house social enterprises and bike repair shops, sprinkled with large scale sculpture, much like the Distillery District in Toronto, or the Highline in NYC. The Brooklyn Navy Yards, or Pier 9 in San Francisco reclaim military infrastructure that has become valuable real estate. The detritus from shuttered industry is repurposed into a playground for the creative class. The Don Valley has been restored to meadows and wetlands. These spaces that had once been the ceaselessly clanging, living epicentres of industry have been transformed by the forces present in the information economies that eclipsed to take the place of heavy industry in Eastern North America.

I’ve always loved these post-industrial spaces that are so demonstrative of the dream of green, sustainable cities. But there is a lurking ambivalence. While we mend the scars of industry that are visible to a wealthy urban populace, our growing hunger and greed are outsourced. The mines and the factories are positioned further away, out of sight, across oceans traversed by tankers spewing smoke. For every garden planted with local species intended to reintroduce butterflies, there is a tonne of e-waste floating across the Pacific to have capacitors torn off by hand, lead and cadmium seeping into groundwater.

The brickworks is closed, and any industrial production is moving further and further out of Toronto. It seems that we want production and industry out of sight, so the illusion of our modern lives can continue on unbroken. We fill in the quarries we can see, and rip apart the landscape further north, and across oceans. Meanwhile, Canadian mining companies destroy livelihoods in South America. Of course, creating these spaces to support further development into green cities is important. But it’s important to remember there is much work to be done, and our lifestyle is propped up by a complex system of production that crisscrosses the globe in fractured supply chains with little transparency. From heavy industry to urban oasis, the brickworks is just one part of the story. But it built the houses I always wished I could live in.

The Things We Carry [Hillary Predko]

(Thanks, Jim!)

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