The Frowniest Spot on Earth

Will Self

  • Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next by John Kasarda and Greg Lindsay
    Allen Lane, 480 pp, £14.99, March 2011, ISBN 978 1 84614 100 3

While John Kasarda shares the title page of this scientific romance masquerading as a work of urban theory, Aerotropolis was written by Greg Lindsay alone. Kasarda, a professor at the University of North Carolina’s business school, may be a peculiar sort of Johnson, but Lindsay, a business journalist, is nonetheless his committed Boswell. A Boswell who, in search of his subject’s zeitgeist wisdom, once mounted a three-week exploration of ‘Airworld’ – as Kasarda calls it – by jetting from terminal to terminal around the globe but never exiting through the door marked ‘arrivals’. Why? Because it is Lindsay’s belief that Kasarda is the most important urban theorist alive today, a man who has fully anticipated the shape the future city must have and who has moved to make it a reality.

From the outset Lindsay’s breathless pen-portrait of his sage is hardly inviting:

He’s the one in the non-iron shirt and wrinkle-free suit, jet lag stamped on his face. He’s flown more than three million miles in the last quarter century – further than any of the men who set foot on the moon … He blends in with all the middle-aged men in first class whom you pass on your way to coach, because he’s one of them … They’re his tribe.

Even more of a turn-off is Lindsay’s sketch of Kasarda’s rhetorical style. His

mother tongue is academic jargon leavened by the argot of business bestsellers. Chat him up at the gate and he’ll spit out long strings of professorial verbiage about ‘spatial friction’, ‘sustainable competitiveness’ and ‘the physical internet’. Listen closely enough, however, and the technobabble crystallises into themes that have obsessed him since his teens: our lot in life is shaped by circumstance; our fates are not necessarily ours to choose.

In fact Kasarda is curiously – or perhaps inevitably, given his drip-dry velocity – physically absent from the pages of Aerotropolis. Rather, Lindsay tracks Kasarda by his spoor, which takes the form of his attempts to persuade politicians and urban planners to massively expand airport infrastructure, integrating it with more traditional aspects of the city to create ‘aerotropoli’. Kasarda’s first drop zone was Kinston in North Carolina, where a prototype ‘transpark’ was built in the 1990s at his suggestion. The aim was a ‘self-contained factory town with assembly lines literally ending in the bellies of waiting planes’. Kasarda didn’t actually choose the duff site for the transpark, but it haemorrhaged state money for a decade before getting on track. No matter, because in the meantime internet commerce had come online, and Kasarda’s blueprint had been taken up by FedEx and UPS, who built viable aerotropoli at Memphis and Louisville, in the trapezoid of mittel-America where flying times to all destinations allow for next-day delivery.

As Lindsay tells it, the internet is the key to Kasarda’s vision – although unlike other scientific romancers he was hardly avant la lettre. He coined the expression ‘the physical internet’ to describe the network of airports, factories, warehouses and fulfilment centres that serviced global luxury trade after the dotcom boom and bust. And it is primarily luxuries that fly. Lindsay excitedly crunches the numbers: ‘In the 30 years between 1975 and 2005, global GDP rose 154 per cent, while world trade grew 355 per cent. Meanwhile, the value of air cargo climbed an astonishing 1395 per cent. More than a third of all the goods traded in the world, some $3 trillion worth – but barely one per cent of its weight! – travels via air freight.’ This promethean fireball of iPads, Peruvian blooms, farmed salmon and Amazon Prime deliveries is what these ardent neoliberals view as powering the world’s growth: like it or not, we are all in the comet’s supply tail, so we’d better build the necessary runways-cum-instant cities to serve it.

We are living, Lindsay tells us, in Kasarda’s ‘Instant Age’, and to put the brakes on Helios’s chariot is to risk a collapse back into the ‘flat world’ of our ancestors. You or I may well view our desire to push buttons and order new electronic gewgaws as the mere reflex spasms of consumerism, but to this dynamic duo the future of the earth depends on our instant gratification more than anything else. Not only that, but according to ‘Kasarda’s Law’, wherever there is electronic connectivity, physical connectivity will follow; far from vitiating the requirement for travel – as per E.M. Forster’s dark prophecy of a wired world of solitary anchorites in his story ‘The Machine Stops’ (1909) – the internet demands that we seek out what we have seen.

And so Kasarda has gone on, locking antlers with the city managers of Detroit and Chicago with a view to snatching winged victory from the jaws of urban decay. Most American cities are a disaster from this visionary’s point of view, given that their airports have already metastasised to fill their available footprint. In Denver, following his quarry’s tracks, Lindsay surveys the entire airport lifecycle from the breaking of new greenfield ground for the Denver International Airport, to the redevelopment of the old brownfield site of Stapleton. A promising proto-aerotropolis has been established at Dulles outside Washington, and Lindsay cannot help but be thrilled by the scale of the economy he witnessed at Dallas-Fort Worth. But the conclusion emerges from the pages of Aerotropolis that if America is going to ride the chariot, rather than merely watch it streak across the skies, it must be tracked to where it is rising: in the East.

Lindsay has sought Kasarda here, now he seeks him there: is he in Thailand, chivvying the corrupt government to whack up an aerotropolis on a drained salt marsh, or going mano a mano with the Chinese cadres as they order the wholesale shift of manufacturing from the coast inland, with the concomitant construction of scores of aerotropoli? Unlike the American transcendentalists of the late 19th century, Kasarda is drawn to the East not because of the obfuscations of its mysticism, but by the raw clarity of its despotisms. ‘It took as long to air the grievances surrounding Heathrow’s Terminal Five as it did to build Beijing’s epic new one from raw ground,’ Lindsay writes. ‘There was no debate in this instance, nor was there any over a third runway or the second, separate hub planned for the capital – where, no one knows, because the location is a state secret. It almost doesn’t matter, because the government will simply do what it did at the site of the current one, which was to flatten 15 villages and resettle 10,000 residents without compensation.’ Kasarda was ‘awed by the ministry’s rationale: “Democracy sacrifices efficiency.”’

Of course, there’s no necessity that the correlation between internet traffic and passenger numbers be viewed as a causal one, any more than we need accept uncritically Kasarda’s characterisation of globalised trade and production as a ‘smiley curve’, where the high value is added in the dimples at either end – the conception of the iPod in California, its marketing and sale on a cloned British high street – and the lesser value accrued in the dip in between by its physical assembly in the gargantuan electronic sweatshops of the Pearl River Delta. But despite the biz-spiel and the spurious attempt to elevate Kasarda to the level of a philosopher (when what he really is is a booster-cum-planner), Aerotropolis lopes along with the bouncy gait of a go-getting salesman on a travelator. Lindsay knows how to coin a nice phrase; I particularly enjoyed his characterisation of the cleared Stapleton airfield as ‘a sandy expanse gridded by empty streets – like a beach awaiting a slow-motion tidal wave of plywood’. Nor is he blind to the possible downsides of aerotropoli: he gives space to the environmental arguments, discussing at length estimated aircraft emissions and the vistas that may lie on the far side of peak oil. But while he is willing to quote Jared Diamond’s chilling estimate that ‘in order for 1.5 billion Chinese to live like Americans do, we will need a second Earth just to clear-cut and strip-mine,’ he nonetheless confidently anticipates a future in which the aerotropolis is the main engine for the ‘sustainable’ growth that allows nine billion earthlings to do just that.

At the core of Kasarda’s conception of the aerotropolis lies the notion that space – unlike time – is fungible. Not so much wedded as welded to their airline seats, he and his amanuensis see the cities of the future as ‘glocal’ phenomena, where high-density urban centres are air-linked to intercontinental faubourgs. But for space to be fungible contracts have to be fulfilled across all jurisdictions, so implicit in the aerotropolis is not so much globalisation as global governance. Lindsay is a strange chronicler of this brave new world – one part Dr Pangloss to two parts H.L. Mencken’s Homo boobus – but for all that, determined to be likeable. There’s a disarming frankness to the way he recounts the poverty of Kenyan flower growers, simply in order to urge us to carry on buying their posies. His vision for the future of the African continent in the Age of the Aerotropolis seems to be as a vast latifundium sown with GM wheat. Equally brazen is his aside that Apple engineers refer to the Foxconn plant in Shenzhen – where the world’s iPhones and most of its iPads, iPods, Playstations, Nintendos and Kindles are assembled – as ‘Mordor’. Why the evil kingdom in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings? ‘At its peak,’ Lindsay writes, ‘some 320,000 workers toiled on its assembly lines and slept in its dormitories.’ A rash of suicides among its workers is part of the reason for Foxconn’s relocation to the still poorer and more immiserated interior of the Heavenly People’s Republic.

We might choose to see this as the frownie face that Kasarda’s smiley face tries to mask: an inverted curve where the greatest misery adds to a product’s value in the middle of its global traverse, while the greatest pleasure is accrued by innovators and consumers at either winsome end. Perhaps the frowniest spot on the face of the earth is the despotic principality of Dubai, where Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s vision coincides perfectly with Kasarda’s: this is an entire statelet conceived of as an aerotropolis – or, at least, as a transpark with attached office space and buy-to-flip real estate. On a trip to Dubai, Lindsay is typically disarming about the labour camps in the desert where the indentured workers sweat and half-starve; after all, he points out, they’re making better money than they would back home in Kerala, or Baluchistan, so that’s OK. He has read – and cites in his notes – the Human Rights Watch 2006 report Building Towers, Cheating Workers: Exploitation of Migrant Construction Workers in the United Arab Emirates, but notwithstanding his admission that Dubai is ‘all dark side’ he remains … upbeat.

Lindsay even takes a walk in Dubai, and although he doesn’t tell us what distance he covered, my impression is he went only a few blocks. I, too, took a walk in Dubai a couple of years ago, but mine was a two-day traverse from the airport, clear across this great city of unbecoming and into the fringes of the Empty Quarter. Lindsay is told that ‘nobody walks in Dubai,’ but this should be modified: nobody white walks in Dubai. Everywhere I went – along the baking sidewalks of Sheikh Zayed Road, through the dust clouds boiling into the phantasm of Tiger Woods Design’s golf development – I encountered brown and black men, on foot, parted from their families for three, five, even ten years, and ekeing out an existence on $10 a day or less. When they weren’t too intimidated to talk to me, they had nothing positive to say about their situation: their faces were wreathed in frowns. My response to this Xanadu – powered by jet fuel and misted by the evaporation of desalinated water – was to stop flying altogether: I no longer wished to pick up any airmiles that contributed to such a future. Perhaps if frenetic flyers like Kasarda and Lindsay ever dared attempt a sustained hike through the wastelands of the postmodern ugliness they enthuse about, they might take a different view. After trekking through Dubai you don’t have to be a Platonist to conclude that anything that aesthetically revolting must be not simply amoral, but bad.

I have called Aerotropolis a scientific romance because like some of the futuristic fiction of the late 19th century it predicates social improvement on technological advance. Some – but not all. In H.G. Wells’s The Sleeper Awakes (his 1910 revision of When the Sleeper Wakes, originally published in 1899), the protagonist, Graham, falls into a strange trance lasting 203 years. He awakes in a transformed London to find himself the richest man in the world, due to the accumulated compound interest on his bank account. As this clumsy conceit would suggest, The Sleeper Awakes isn’t vintage Wells, and even after the rewriting he felt compelled to preface the book with the hack’s usual moans about deadline pressure. However, although the text is clunky – full of world-building longueurs and the kind of crude transposition of the styles and modes of the historical past onto an envisioned future that anticipates early period Star Trek – it does have this virtue: it perfectly exemplifies the way in which Fin de Siècle scientific romances, while overtly furnished with future technologies, were responding to a contemporary social impasse.

Marxist critics such as Ernst Bloch, Fredric Jameson and, more recently, Matthew Beaumont in his excellent survey Utopia Ltd: Ideologies of Social Dreaming in England 1870-1900, have seen in the utopian/dystopian antinomies of these fictions an attempt to reconcile emergent class conflicts outside of the temporal schemas mandated by either dialectical materialism or capitalist progress. By sending their protagonists to the distant future, writers such as Wells, Edward Bellamy (in Looking Backward: 2000-1887) and William Morris (in News from Nowhere, his rejoinder to Bellamy’s hugely influential novel) sought to vault presently insoluble contradictions. Of course, the same contradictions may well persist into the future, but the shock of the old can enable the awakened sleeper, this petit-bourgeois member of the intelligentsia, to resolve the essential dilemma: should he tilt towards the proletariat, or incline to the hegemony of capital?

Certainly, this is Graham’s problem in The Sleeper Awakes, and while he is instrumental in the ousting of one despotic regime – the White Council – he then becomes the tool of Ostrog the new dictator, who brings in shock troops from the African dependencies to crush a workers’ uprising. Graham tilts to the proletariat, but the novel ends inconclusively when, during a battle with the fleeing Ostrog in the skies over the London aerotropolis, his aircraft is damaged and he plummets towards the ground. Still, even in a mediocre book Wells still manages more prescience than a shelf-load of contemporary futurologists; in The Sleeper Awakes it’s the critical importance of powered flight that stands out, as well as the globalisation of production and exchange, and a form of the internet which employs ‘kineto-telephoto-graphs’ by means of which the resurrected Edwardian is, naturally, offered pornography to look at.

A century later, Greg Lindsay has just about managed to match Wells by writing a sort of feelgood sequel to The Sleeper Awakes. With its vast cities interlinked by air transport and its kineto-telephoto-graphs lubricating our appetites, Aerotropolis is a classic example of the Fin de Siècle scientific romance in its utopian guise. It aims, like its predecessors, to resolve the contradictions and divisions of the present by thrusting its readers – if not its protagonist – into a future typified by plenty, social accord and clean, green cities linked together by clean, green jets powered using bio-fuels developed by Richard Branson. There, I told you it was science fiction. And if you needed any more convincing you’ve only to read the frontispiece quote, which is from an essay J.G. Ballard wrote for Blueprint in 1997:

I suspect that the airport will be the true city of the 21st century. The great airports are already the suburbs of an invisible world capital, a virtual metropolis whose faubourgs are named Heathrow, Kennedy, Charles de Gaulle, Nagoya, a centripetal city whose population forever circles its notional centre, and will never need to gain access to its dark heart.

Later on, in a discussion of the furore surrounding Heathrow’s projected third runway, Lindsay again waxes approving over Ballard’s hymn to the banjaxed landscape of the Heathrow environs, with its choked arterial roads, light industrial units and warehousing entrepots. But I wonder quite how much of Ballard’s work – beyond this essay – Lindsay has actually taken in. In scores of short stories and a string of novels concerned with ‘the next five minutes’ that so vitally engaged Ballard, he often moves through these airport interzones, but his characters barely ever enter the terminals, and I cannot think of a single instance where one takes to the air on a commercial flight. While it’s invidious to second-guess a writer’s stated view – ‘I welcome its transience, alienation and discontinuities, and its unashamed response to the pressures of speed, disposability and the instant impulse’ – I don’t believe Lindsay senses the satiric undercurrents beneath the machined ripples of Ballard’s prose. This same essay, much of which is explicitly directed against the Tudorbethan ‘aesthetic’ of the Prince of Wales, concludes with Ballard saying: ‘I look forward to … the transformation of Britain into the ultimate departure lounge. After all, we have every reason to leave.’

Aerotropolis arrives and departs with a description of New Songdo, an aerotropolis being built on reclaimed land near Seoul to Kasarda’s spec. The notable fact about New Songdo is not, in my view, its environmental credentials or its ‘sustainability’ (a nauseating lexical fig leaf for priapic capitalism), let alone its unity with its airstrip, but that it’s being whacked up double-quick by an American construction company. If, at the end of British empire’s century, it was Wells’s petit-bourgeois anxiety that sought resolution in a future of megacities, for me it’s American anxiety at the end of the American one. In a globalised world the choices are stark for the American petit-bourgeois intelligentsia: be absorbed into the Mordor of the Chinese proletariat, or somehow retain a niche in the emergent Chiworld by becoming its city-building, iPad-designing, FedExing technocracy.

In Lindsay and Kasarda’s view there is no third way. Kasarda had an epiphany as a child, when he witnessed a mining disaster in his Rustbelt hometown of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. The coalminers, having tunnelled beneath Susquehanna River in search of viable seams, were literally as well as metaphorically submerged by their economic redundancy. Kasarda took from this the Marxian insight that the individual will matters little when it comes to awakening from the nightmare of history. What he seems not to have grasped is the oneiric character of progress-without-end itself, and so he and Lindsay remain slumbering on the redeye flight to apocalypse. Dream on.