Living with the Other: Animals, the City, and the Future
By Vandana Singh
27 June 2011
I have been a city girl all my life—despite a constant desire for a more exciting life, such as living in a tree or a cave, I never even got a chance to live in the country. I spent most of my formative years in the metropolis of New Delhi, with summer trips to the large, sprawling town of Patna to see my grandparents. Yet even in the country's capital, a city of millions, my life was filled with daily encounters with non-humans. Every morning we were nearly deafened by the cooing of a pair of apparently demented pigeons (and their successors) who nested on the window sill. There were parakeets in the trees around the flat, and a host of mynahs cackling on the verandah like a troupe of stand-up comics. Wandering cows, pariah dogs living in packs, the occasional monkey, camel, elephant, or pig—these were familiar sights. We got to know certain individuals, marked them by their appearance, their eccentricities, their personalities, like the dog who always tried to get into the house, and the robin that came in through the window every winter for years, and slept on top of the curtains. Kitchen leavings went to the neighborhood cows or birds—after all, they had to eat too. We accepted them as placidly as the cows accepted the traffic that swirled around them as they sat chewing the cud in the middle of the road. Along with the broad, tree-lined avenues, the elegant, British-era buildings and modern high-rises, the non-human denizens were part of the Delhi scene.
For all of human history, we have lived close to other species, hunted them, domesticated them, or simply been in daily proximity to them. We have slept under the stars, watched sunsets, and looked for water on a daily basis. It is only in modern, urban settings that humans have lost regular contact with animals and the wilderness.
"So what?" one might ask. Are there consequences to this distancing? Urban geographer Jennifer Wolch, now at the University of California in Berkeley, thinks so. In her essay "Zoopolis" she argues that humans need non-human species around them for "the development of human cognition, identity and consciousness," and in order to develop "a maturity that accepts ambiguity, difference and lack of control." Realizing that other species socially construct the world just as humans do, and thus are subjects, not objects, enables us to allow for the existence of multiple perspectives. Perhaps this is necessary to balance human hubris, our modern cultural tendency to see the world solely in terms of its short-term material usefulness to us. The view that non-human species are essential to us is also consistent with the hypothesis that humans have biophilia, an innate attraction to nature, to other species or living systems, an idea popularized by the entomologist E. O. Wilson. Roger Ulrich, a professor of architecture at Texas A&M University, pioneered a 1984 study published in Science that showed that patients recovering from surgery in hospital rooms that looked onto beautiful natural scenes not only recovered faster but were less stressed and needed less pain medication. And more recently Peter Kahn, professor of psychology at the University of Washington, has published research that shows that human beings need real nature—our minds and bodies, long evolved to co-exist with wilderness, are not fooled by plasma screens of gorgeous nature scenes, although these have their uses.
So if we are wired to be responsive to nature and other species, why don't many of us feel the lack of contact? Plenty of people appear to get by just fine without even thinking of other species. Look at our literature. Modern Western literature in English is probably some kind of anomaly in the history of literature in its exclusive obsession with human affairs. With the exception of some science fiction writers and mainstream writers like Barbara Kingsolver, when do other species figure largely in our stories, if at all? I recall reading Isaac Asimov's Foundation series as a kid and being somewhat amazed at the planet-sized city of Trantor. When I re-read these books recently they failed to impress, and in fact I was appalled at the idea of Trantor. A planet-sized built space would give me acute claustrophobia. So why are so many urban dwellers oblivious of animals and trees? And why do we keep destroying the world we depend on for our survival?
Peter Kahn has a hypothesis about this: he calls it environmental generational amnesia. It is a problem of shifting baselines: what a particular generation experienced of nature in childhood is considered normal. As the natural world degrades, the baseline keeps shifting, so that the increasingly degraded world is considered normal by successive generations. But I think there is more to it than that—the roots of environmental degradation must surely lie in our economic and social systems that, for the profit of a few, arrange and dictate how we live, how we work, how we travel, what we consider entertainment, what we consider a normal life. In fact our lives are far from normal and we don't even know it. In his new book, Technological Nature: Adaptation and the Future of Human Life, Kahn says that "our minds and bodies came of age hundreds of thousands of years ago on the African savannah, where certain patterns of interaction with nature contributed to our survival and psychological well-being." These patterns, he says, are still with us. Kahn is not arguing for a return to the savannah, but for a recognition that we need nature still, if not more than ever.
So I began thinking about what I'd like to call the Trantor syndrome. How do we counter the alienation from nature that characterizes modern human urban experience? A 2007 report by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) states that by 2008 we would have crossed a landmark: more than 50% of the world population would be living in cities. By 2030 nearly 5 billion people will be urbanites. While it is true that cities, particularly in the so-called First World, leech massive resources, agricultural and otherwise, from the surrounding areas and from far-off mining sites or cash crop plantations, all of which lead to the continual destruction of habitat, loss of biodiversity, and the attendant ills of human poverty and mass migration to cities, surely it is possible to imagine a future city that grows most of its own food, invites nature in rather than walling itself off from it, and where people enjoy a multitude of interactions among themselves and nature? New visions of the city have given rise to the notion of a sustainable city; there is an international Transition Town movement to respond to the climate change crisis at a local level; MIT hosts a Senseable Cities Lab that exploits the increasing use of sensors and electronics to study and understand how cities function. From vertical farming to zero energy homes, the re-visioning of the city is well under way.
The city I want to imagine is Jennifer Wolch's Zoopolis. It will likely share some of the characteristics of the cities described above, but it differs from them in positioning animals boldly and unambiguously as inhabitants, not interlopers. In her essay, Dr. Wolch states that "we need to renaturalize cities and invite the animals back in, and in the process re-enchant the city . . . the reintegration of people with animals and nature in Zoopolis can provide urban dwellers with the local, situated, everyday knowledge of animal life required to grasp animal standpoints or ways of being in the world . . ."
How would we do such a thing? How would we reintroduce animals and nature while simultaneously maintaining safe spaces for humans, including children? I had an enlightening email exchange with Dr. Wolch recently in which she clarified that there is no blueprint for a zoopolis but rather there are "practices that might be considered zoopolitan planning . . . [including] the development of wildlife corridors of varying scales throughout the city, redesign of city parks to provide higher habitat value, strategies for private landscaping that promote habitat . . ." An example of a community that is inspired by zoopolitan idealism is Harmony, Florida, where 70% of the original land is preserved, native vegetation is integrated into public landscaping, and wildlife corridors allow residents (who live in Energy Star homes and whose children walk to school) to have daily interactions with nature. While there is often a gap between theory and practice, as detailed in a fascinating 2009 article by Seymour and Wolch in the Journal of Urbanism, the fact remains that this community has taken some crucial steps toward Zoopolis.
When I return in my memory to my birth city of Delhi, I find in its past some attitudes consistent with zoopolitan ideals. The notion that animals have their own agendas, identities, and desires, and that they naturally have a right to continue to exist has been part of Hindu and Buddhist ways of thinking for millennia. In India these attitudes have to some extent influenced other religions as well; the naturalist Valmik Thapar makes a point of this in his Nature television series for PBS (India: Land of the Tiger): that in an overpopulated subcontinent rapidly losing its natural resources, perhaps the one reason why so many species still survive is this religious-philosophical tolerance for the lives of animals. Unfortunately economic liberalization and the rampant consumerism that has come with it has dealt a harsh blow to India's wildlife and natural resources, partly by undermining some of these old ways of thinking. When I visit Delhi today I am horrified at the way it redefines urban sprawl. There are highways springing up everywhere, traffic jams and pollution (despite buses that run on compressed natural gas), and a whole host of satellite towns where urbanites live so they can commute to the city for work. Construction is proceeding at such an insane rate that farmlands and whatever pathetic wildlife areas that are left are being swallowed up. In an interview about sustainable cities, the ecofeminist and activist Vandana Shiva says that "every good designer and architect is tearing their hair" at this transformation of Delhi, which is being designed for the automobile, not for human beings.
This rampant mutilation of Delhi is having an impact. As a child I could laze in the fairly spacious front lawn of the government flat where we lived, in the middle of Delhi, and watch a paradise flycatcher in the tree above my head. In the back I had built a bird bath where coppersmith barbets, pigeons, and crows would take turns having baths. The trees were noisy with parakeets and mynahs; sparrows were everywhere, and in the hedges you would see the occasional mongoose. We had no television, nor did we ever feel its lack because the world around us was full of interest, mystery, and the chance to build relationships with fascinating non-humans. Now Delhi's sparrows are dying out and even the hardy crow is difficult to spot in the middle of the city.
If any place needs re-enchantment, it is the city of my birth. Yet there is some hope here still. The writer Ranjit Lal, in his 2008 book Wild City, details how Delhi's wildlife is hanging on so far. Once, having left his house with the balcony door of his bedroom ajar, Lal returned to find his bedroom ransacked by rhesus monkeys. For some reason they had shredded all his wildlife magazines. Rhesus monkeys also raid people's refrigerators; on occasion they have been known to attack and bite people. The Indian government may be the only government in the world to have a monkey on its payroll—the majestic langur, employed for the sole purpose of chasing off rhesus monkeys from the elegant, British-built offices of the central government where they would otherwise steal lunches and shred government documents. Apparently the other way to deal with rhesus monkeys is to capture them (whole families at a time so they do not suffer emotional distress) and release them into a forest or a preserve, but according to Lal they are irreversibly citified and immediately feel the pull of the bright lights and free food. (Behind these benign attitudes toward the animals is, of course, the Hindu reverence for the monkey god Hanuman).
My parents now live in one of the satellite towns near Delhi, and they still have daily encounters with other species. From the peacocks that parade on the terrace in the morning to the occasional monkey who sits on the wall waiting for a banana, there are animals coexisting with humans as they (and we) have always done. My mother tells me that just last month she saw an astonishing sight: a large sow wandering by with a troop of little piglets, rooting in the monsoon rain-filled ditches by the roadside—not by itself an uncommon occurrence, but what was extraordinary was that the porcine parade was accompanied by a baby monkey who took turns riding on the piglets. When the sow lay down to nurse the piglets, the monkey joined them too—it had apparently been adopted by the pigs. Unfortunately by the time my mother remembered her camera the whole troop had moved on.
When I hear such stories I am at once fascinated (how could the idea of a pig adopting a monkey not change how we view a pig, or a monkey?) and envious. I miss those daily encounters with animals that enriched my childhood and young-adulthood. As much as my family and culture, they formed who I am; they helped me to be in the world. Animals, said the writer and naturalist Henry Beston, "are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth." We cannot, after all, live in Trantor: if we are to exist in the future, we must re-vision the city, and indeed the world itself, to make room for the rest of nature, of which we are only a part and without which we cannot survive.