High-tech city-region conceptual nightmares get all the attention:
Gray had signed on to a city-building exercise so ambitious that it verges on the fantastical. An internal Neom “style catalog” viewed by Bloomberg Businessweek includes elevators that somehow fly through the sky, an urban spaceport, and buildings shaped like a double helix, a falcon’s outstretched wings, and a flower in bloom. The chosen site in Saudi Arabia’s far northwest, stretching from the sun-scorched Red Sea coast into craggy mountain badlands, has summer temperatures over 100F and almost no fresh water. Yet, according to MBS and his advisers, it will soon be home to millions of people who’ll live in harmony with the environment, relying on desalination plants and a fully renewable electric grid. They’ll benefit from cutting-edge infrastructure and a regulatory system designed expressly to foster new ideas—as long as those ideas don’t include challenging the authority of MBS. There may even be booze. Neom appears to be one of the crown prince’s highest priorities, and the Saudi state is devoting immense resources to making it a reality.
Yet five years into its development, bringing Neom out of the realm of science fiction is proving a formidable challenge, even for a near-absolute ruler with access to a $620 billion sovereign wealth fund. According to more than 25 current and former employees interviewed for this story, as well as 2,700 pages of internal documents, the project has been plagued by setbacks, many stemming from the difficulty of implementing MBS’s grandiose, ever-changing ideas—and of telling a prince who’s overseen the imprisonment of many of his own family members that his desires can’t be met.
The consultants love it, we can be sure. But it’s not just this or similar grandiose, wrecked visions. Every municipality – and they are multitude – that prioritizes roads and personal automobiles faces an acute reckoning. The sci-fi setting isn’t even necessary, the merely ubiquitous [ed. pedestrian? deja ] cities and towns that strand people just far enough away from school, food, work, and/or play represent an invisible disaster, one we don’t understand, one we will seek to blame on anyone but ourselves and in so doing, soften the ground for fascist inroads. It’s pretty straightforward and has everything to do with removing the humanity from daily interactions.
Examples like Neom could do a better job of serving to remind us of the chief failings of our own unworkable burgs, keep us off the hinterlands and more engaged in town life.
Image: A planned seaside hotel. Photographer: Iman Al-Dabbagh
Since this is what goes, anything goes. Raising questions about what we were led to believe – no, an after-the-fact description in place of an assessment is not one. It’s a critique, disassociated and casually thoughtless. And all the while confirming that anyone can just do anything and… wait a minute: who is the nihilist here? Oh. The advertising company
The Wikimedia Foundation released a statement asserting that North Face and the ad agency behind the campaign, Leo Burnett Tailor Made, had “unethically manipulated Wikipedia” and “risked your trust in our mission for a short-lived marketing stunt.”
“Wikipedia and the Wikimedia Foundation did not collaborate on this stunt, as The North Face falsely claims,” the statement read. “When The North Face exploits the trust you have in Wikipedia to sell you more clothes, you should be angry.”
And then ‘Brought to you by’ declares they will commit to ‘ensuring their teams and vendors are better trained on the site policies,’ though of course they did not say they are committed or when they would be. Until then, and perhaps for some time afterward, we should remain vigilant about what we are led to believe.
We read, write and talk about how much giant corporations are willing to pay to support the fiction that climate change isn’t happening, so let’s not talk about it (because shut up!). Similarly, how long will the People’s Liberation Army put up with protests of this size? Tear gas and crowds that big are beginning to put them on front pages. Then what? Crackdown? Is that the game plan?
While many Hong Kong residents support the calls for greater democracy — dubbed the “umbrella revolution” by some, although the crowds’ demands fall far short of revolution — the unrest worries others.
“I strongly disagree with the protesters,” said an older woman who gave only her surname, Chan. “Those of us who came to the city 60 or 70 years ago had nothing and we worked and suffered so much to make Hong Kong the rich city it is today. And now the protesters have made our society unstable. For me, being able to eat and sleep is already a luxury. I don’t need democracy. What does it mean?”
Many younger Hong Kong residents raised in an era of plenty and with no experience of past political turmoil in mainland China have higher expectations. Under an agreement set in 1984, before most of them were born, Beijing promised to allow Hong Kong residents civil liberties unseen on the mainland after it took control of the city of 7.1 million in 1997.
The protesters are dismayed by China’s decision last month that candidates in the city’s first-ever election for its top leader must be hand-picked by a committee of mostly pro-Beijing tycoons. That move is viewed by many residents as reneging on promises to allow greater democracy in the semi-autonomous territory, since Beijing had promised that the chief executive would eventually be chosen through “universal suffrage.”
A promise since the time of the ‘handover’ was popular elections by 2017, and now that looks a little… different. Civil disobedience is unpredictable and that’s the last thing the Communist Communist Party wants. If anything is allowed to get out of hand in HK, look for similar kinds of demonstrations in the other megalopolises of the mainland. But a heavy-anded crackdown also seems unlikely. Watch the bond and stock markets teeter for a few days – they hate disorder, people, rights, democracy. It’s not what they’re about. Who has the upper hand, moving forward? How much can be paid to deny this is happening? Also, pay attention to which Westerners criticize the protesters and why.
Images: Christian Science Monitor, Wally Santana
Sometimes, within the context of a supposed competition and especially one between competing ideas, it’s instructive to remember that the two sides might not even be playing the same game. One example.
Students at Harvard and other universities are agitating for the university to divest themselves of investments in the fossil fuel industry. Last week the President of Harvard Drew Faust issued a statement saying thanks but no thanks harvard will no do no such thing. Here’s a response from Divinity School student and climate activist Tim DeChristopher (who served a two-year federal sentence for civil disobedience):
Drew Faust seeks a position of neutrality in a struggle where the powerful only ask that people like her remain neutral. She says that Harvard’s endowment shouldn’t take a political position, and yet it invests in an industry that spends countless millions on corrupting our political system. In a world of corporate personhood, if she doesn’t want that money to be political, she should put it under her mattress. She has clearly forgotten the words of Paolo Freire: “Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and powerless means to side with the powerful, not to remain neutral.” Or as Howard Zinn put succinctly, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.”
She touts all the great research on climate change that is done at Harvard, but she ignores the fact that the fossil fuel industry actively works to suppress or distort every one of those efforts. To seriously suggest that any research will solve the climate crisis while we continue to allow the fossil fuel industry to maintain a stranglehold on our democracy is profoundly naive.
Emphasis mine. One side is trying to convince the public that climate change is real, the other is working, and largely succeeding, at stifling debate. Climate change denialists aren’t even that – they can’t and won’t debate the issue on the merits, and the public should take note. What they choose to do is attack the open system whereby society can debate what is happening to it and decide what to do. This course is at least as pernicious as the effects of the dirty energy of which it is service, as it provides for a comprehensive anti-democratic attack on the objective of self-government itself.
Speaking of sustainability… Tunisia.
While I’ll defer to professor Cole for extended analysis, it’s rather glaring around the web that no one seems to know much about Tunisia, the Maghreb, or anything relevant to Le Monde Arab beyond the idiosyncratic locution of “the War on Terrorism.” I’ll add my ‘tender filings’ to the meager pile.
These actually consist of an acquaintance of a few dozen Tunisians, friendships with a few and ten days there in 2005. Tunis, the capital, is actually ancient Carthage; it’s about 90 miles from the westernmost tip of Sicily; Former French colony and so replete with period colonial layout and architecture; a deep sense of its history and of Arab culture; Islamic but largely secular; extraordinary life on the streets, especially the maze of shops and markets in la Medina of most cities. A highly educated population, a significant percentage of which is under forty. Great food, delicious wine. The seductive Arabic language. As a francophile, easy to fall in love with the place and the people.
But there are were pictures of President Ben Ali everywhere, in every single business with a door. A society secured by a police state. State controlled media. And the highly educated, multi-lingual populace was is largely without jobs or other future prospects equal to their wide-ranging abilities and expansive world views. Cafes full of smart people with no jobs. It didn’t add up, and most had understood this for a long time.
And now, as liberating as what’s going on there might sound, it is a very dark time for the people actually living there. I hope they make it through, and the army stands aside long enough for a legitimate civilian government to emerge. They’ve entered the crucible, but as the title to this post translates, they’ve had enough.