When we started writing The spatial contract a few years ago, a global pandemic was not the crisis we had in mind. We were concerned about rising inequality, about the climate, about crumbling infrastructure and political stagnation.
We knew that these interlinked crises needed to be understood in material terms, in the systems we all depend upon for survival and basic freedoms. These systems, which we call reliance systems, are the basic building blocks for everyday life: water, transportation, food, housing, energy, education. And of course, health care.
The normal reaction to the failures of so many governments to adequately prepare for a pandemic that has long been predicted is to get angry about the state of contemporary politics. The spatial contract asks you to take one more step: ask yourself what politics in the 21st century should be about. At the heart of our book is a plea to make these life – and freedom – giving systems the attention they deserve. We may or may not like our neighbors or compatriots, but the whole reason we must engage with them and do politics is that we depend upon each other to make these systems work. Reliance systems need to be the center of a 21st century politics if we are going to survive, let alone thrive, in the face of current challenges.
With the possible exception of a few hermits, most of us depend on systems that are collectively-produced. By collective we don’t mean government, or business, or a tribe, or any specific form of collective. We simply mean bigger than us as individuals or households. Even if you grow your own food, you are surely connected to systems that provision seeds, fertilizer, agricultural knowledge, bartering possibilities, farm tools and much more. All the medical knowledge in the world is no help without a functioning system of PPE manufacture and distribution, an economic system which supports health care, training and education for the general public, vast systems for making medical devices, and so much more. No matter how rich or hard working you are, it is a simple fact of 21st century life that we are connected through these systems, and these systems need to work.
A core focus of the book, one often lost amidst the political debates and ideological noise, is another fact: not only do these systems matter, but they are very different. Water is not food; housing is not transportation. Each of these systems operates with its own sets of material rules, political logics, local history and particular culture, and these vary from place to place. As we are learning so terribly right now, these systems are generally not substitutable. A country with the most powerful police force in the world can be humbled by a lack of N95 masks, ICU beds and working ventilators in the face of a pandemic.
The tragedy of coronavirus isn’t simply a general failing of politics, but a very specific set of failings when it comes to preparation and testing and PPE and health care workers, a failing of supply chains and the life cycle of finance and debt, or the unforeseen limitations of our systems of entertainment and public gatherings and the economies and politics that depend on them. Our only hope during these times is that this book helps people focus on systems, on the human settlements which we have built around these systems, on the freedoms that these systems enable and the horrible forms of exploitation and oppression used by the few to exploit the reliance of so many.
Sadly, we are also acutely aware that the crises we wrote this book about will still be with us when we can once again gather in public. For those of you not ready to engage right now, we hope we have written a book that will endure the test of time, for the issues it addresses certainly will.
As you, our readers, will surely understand, it is profoundly uncomfortable to promote a book during a pandemic. While we will eventually speak more in public about it, and hopefully have the chance to meet in person to discuss these ideas, for now it will be a slow process that we hope respects the challenges of the moment. We will leave it to our readers to decide how essential the service of ideas are in these times. For those that have the time and the means, we simply ask that you leave supply chains open for other items, and buy the electronic version if you can.
By Alex Schafran
Alex Schafran is an urban planner and geographer, and the author of The Road to Resegregation: Northern California and the Failure of Politics
The spatial contract: A new politics of provision for an urbanized planet, by Alex Schafran, Matthew Noah Smith and Stephen Hall, is available to buy now.