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Hopeful Resilience

From the tailings of large open pit mines and omnipresent data centers to the over-concentration of capital in the hands of the few, we appear to be in an age of accumulation, feeling the weight of what once seemed so light. The internet and information has become concrete, literally utilizing the sand and metals of our earth to transmit its data in a manner not so different then constructing roads and buildings. So much weight makes us dream of being plastic and light, mobile, modulatory, capable of bearing all these materialities while continuing to sustain the technical and economic fantasies of eternal growth and novel change. It is perhaps of little surprise then, that since the 1970s, it is the word “resilience” that has become the figure of hope for planners, entrepreneurs, policy makers, and environmentalists alike. Resilience is a system’s ability to absorb shock and continue functioning. The best system is the one that can bear the weight, if we will, of dynamic change and flexibly respond to the accumulations of population, matter, contaminants, and money. The best ecology is one that can keep operating under a lot of pressure.

The 1970s marked the rise of another myth-reality, that of finance capital and derivatives. Finance is often presumed to be feather light and mobile, unattached to earthly matters. While financial instruments are often argued to be detached from the social and material processes that make commodities—understood as money making more money—as the recent 2008 “crisis” demonstrated, nothing could be further from the truth. Derivatives are financial instruments that allow a certain amount of something (mortgages, tables, anything) to be traded at some point in the future at an agreed upon price. One can also, for example, bet on the cancellation of an order, or some other event changing the future price of the underlying commodity or security, and so forth. The result is that the size of derivatives markets exceeds the world’s GDP by twenty times. Despite being seemingly abstract and delinked from the present, derivatives also drive human actions. People build homes, take mortgages, and subsequently suffer when these markets move. As cultural theorist Randy Martin has argued, rather than separating itself from social processes of production and reproduction, the derivative actually demonstrates the increased inter-relatedness, globalization, and socialization of debt. By tying together disparate actions and objects into a single assembled bundle of reallocated risks to trade, derivatives make us more indebted both to each other and to the earth itself, which is often the literal matter of such exchanges.

What then is the relationship between speculation and resilience? Our contemporary condition, often labeled the Anthropocene, has unveiled the geological materiality of those things considered social and technical—financial instruments, digital media, and information economies—and forced us to ask by what tactics and strategies, by what affective techniques, do we continue to speculate upon earthly destruction? How might we think together the seeming incommensurability of the material weight and geological timeliness of our earthly actions with the speed and mobility of globalized, computational, and machine traded capital? These questions emerged for me, quite viscerally, in the course of doing field work on the topic of logistics and smart cities. I became concerned with the forms of speculation and hope that continue to facilitate the on-going penetration of computation—both in terms of “smart” cities, grids, logistical systems, and finance—into the earth. For architecture, the question becomes one of thinking how time and space are organized to allow for the continuous operation of development and design when there is a widespread recognition that current forms of urban planning, growth, and development are injurious to human and other forms of life. In order to begin confronting the logics of derivation, extraction, and speculation on negative futures, ones that accept the sacrifice of certain lives as necessary and justified for survival and even growth—what I am labeling “resilient hope”—I want to discuss two scenes from my research: one in West Bengal, India and the other in New York City, United States. While seemingly disparate, thinking through these sites as related to both financialization and extraction might offer us a better understanding of the forms of hope and speculation currently allowing us both to continue myths of economic and technical growth while embracing a future understood as finite and catastrophic.

In March of 2016 I went to West Bengal to investigate both urban development in Kolkata and how Chinese capital is reformulating territory. One site I visited was the city of Siliguri, located at the border between China, India, Nepal, and Bangladesh on a floodplain of the Himalayas, and therefore an essential component of the vast river systems that are central to life throughout the region. It is also a major site for the extraction of boulders and sand from the river beds that are used for road and building construction, of which there is currently a great deal of throughout the region. The Asian Development Bank has been investing large sums of money to develop a new “silk road” as part of a broader Asian Highway plan to increase and improve infrastructure throughout South and Southeast Asia. Accompanying this speculative infrastructure is also a real-estate development boom largely catering to foreign investment. Both the roads and condos demand massive financing and, of course, concrete. Concrete, in turn, demands sand particles that are clean, smooth, hard, and without clay, chemical coatings or other contamination. To make concrete one must use sand worn by water, which is usually dredged from a river or seabed. A multitude of often disposable laborers working under deplorable conditions endlessly mine sand from local riverbeds, sinking water levels around Siliguri into the earth, drying up, and threatening a major source of water for much of India and Bangladesh.

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