On ‘urban supremicism’ and the end of opportunity cost

I have been following Greek citizens’ response to the collapse of their economy and their likely exit from the Eurozone. Some, doing the hard work of their forbears, have returned to the land. Others, like Gregoris Skouros (see “As Economics of Everyday Life Erode, Some Greeks See Little Hope” [New York Times, Sept. 19, 2012]), have tried to start an escargot farm with a view to exporting snails to wealthy buyers in France and Italy. The idea that the modern city may not be the place in which one leads a good life is now coming into view.

Last month, my friend Dougald Hine spoke at Future Perfect, a once-yearly festival concerned with sustainable living, about what he calls “urban-supremicism.” On my construal, his urban-supremicism view consists of two claims. One is that migration from the country to the city, during the onset of industrial capitalism and since, was not an inevitability; in many cases, migration came as the result of coercion and exploitation, not because of individual choice. The second is that life in the modern city is not, all things considered, intrinsically better than life in the country. If the migration was not inevitable, then it can be reversed; if life in the city is not in all respects desirable, then it can be brought into question.

I skimmed a story in Bloomberg about Task Rabbit, a service that allows users to outsource individual tasks–the simplest errands, the greatest drudgeries–to the lowest bidder. You might pay me $20 to clean your house on the fly. I noted in yesterday’s New York Times that beauty salons and mobile-manicure providers are now “on the go.” According to one beauty salon owner, “Urban women are so busy with jobs, family and life, and it becomes harder to find a couple of hours to carve out to go and see your stylist on a day and time that works for both the client and the stylist.” Apparently, irony is no longer in vogue.

Dougald invites us to consider the qualitative difference between cooking food for loved ones and making food at a restaurant; between giving a handmade gift and buying one online; between massaging a lover’s back and paying for one; between growing one’s food and running a credit card at a supermarket. Here on the Upper East Side, nannies walk children to Central Park, dog walkers walk dogs around the block while professionals spend their days in Midtown, Fresh Direct delivers groceries to owners’ doorsteps, personal assistants arrange family schedules, and tutors see to children’s homework.

We have to ask what it feels like to engage wholeheartedly in one kind of activity in comparison with another where this ‘another’ is of an entirely different order. What does it feel like to live according to nature, and what does it feel like to fight your way through a massive, standardized, bulk-sized CostCo? Perhaps, in what promises to be a post-growth world opportunity cost will no longer have the final say in the matter.

2 thoughts on “On ‘urban supremicism’ and the end of opportunity cost

  1. My own personal experience tells me that the tides are turning and people might be moving back to the country. My current position is that I own a farm that I don’t utilize. At the same time I have a “respectable”, job in the city that pays relatively well.

    Last week I did a cashflow estimate for next year and it didn’t look good. If my expenses stay the same my net loss for 2013 will be 30% of my early income. If I sell my car it will only be 10%. Pretty grim outlook. This made me play around with a different scenario. There I plan to take 6 months off work, do B&B at my farm, get some extra hens to lay eggs for me to sell and lastly to grow vegetables on an acre of land. This scenary gives me a surplus of 45% of my current income; using conservative income estimates.

    So my situation is that either I sell the farm and buy a small place in the city or I dive into farming.

    Fortunately the choice for me is simple since farming has long been a dream of mine. In the past though I have been afraid to take the step because of uncertainty about income. Now I’m practically driven out of the city. For a change the capitalistic bottom line is on my side. :-)

    I don’t know how the situation is elsewhere is but this is empirical evidence from Iceland.


    1. Thanks, Þráinn, for this response. I agree with you that a life of simplicity is far superior to one filled with distractions, temptations, and idle pleasures.

      For the past 2 years, I’ve been attracted to what I’d call a ‘lived-reductio’ argument: those who are figures of success are also failures. When modern capitalism is unworkable for even those who are ‘doing well’ in the professional class, then something is seriously flawed. Before now, one thinks that peasants, migrant laborers, minorities, the uneducated, etc. were at a ‘competitive disadvantage.’ Now the college educated in the developed world are also feeling alienated.

      In this connection, Dougald Hine tweeted a nice podcast on ‘Why civilizations can’t climb hills.’ http://www2.lse.ac.uk/newsAndMedia/videoAndAudio/channels/publicLecturesAndEvents/player.aspx?id=164 In the talk, Prof. James Scott argues that barbarians are not primordial outliers pre-existing the birth of the state; rather, they are, in some cases, ‘secondary adaptations’ to the hegemony of the modern state, the power of cities, and the invention of agriculture. Interesting talk I’m sure you’ll enjoy.

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