- Words by Denise Hoffman Brandt
‘Nothing in the urban environment exists autonomously — the city is a web of fascinating contingencies’. Michael Sorkin, 2009
I have drawn this as a tribute looking forward, emphatically not in memoriam. As if we could consign Michael Sorkin to the past. His call to designers and planners and, as he would say ‘comrades’, to think, write and draw to orchestrate the complex sustaining and destructive relationships that enmesh us, is worth answering now as much as at any time before. So here I have tried to parse the remote systems complicit in the death of my brilliant friend. It is a personal attempt to situate the sense of loss in the context of urbanity itself – to connect the absence of Michael Sorkin’s voice among us to the tragic and fascinating contingencies that consumed him metaphorically, and ultimately, physically.
And anyway, a map is just a drawing, and Michael loved drawings.
Michael Sorkin usually took an interest in the depressing design research projects I tend to pick up: ziggurats of nuclear waste, backyards in Detroit contaminated by windborne particulates from riverfront coal dust stockpiles, and degrading urban climate-change impacts more subtle than sea-level rise. We shared indignation, yet I always admired Michael’s generosity towards people’s wayward joys. When I imagine talking to him about what I found while tracking how the reservoirs of virus in bats jumped to an infectious host, and from that to humans, to Michael himself, I know it would have left us both queasy. And outraged at the senseless loss. Just as I am outraged that we have all lost him.
I hope never again to have to look at photos of bushels of pangolin scales next to piles of their coiled little bodies. Or at grinning men, even Thai prostitutes hired to impersonate hunters, gleefully posing on top of flattened tigers and rhinos or yanking back the head of a dead lion. (I thought it was alive until I read the caption and noticed the blood on red earth next to the guy’s boot.) No more views of row after row of boxed shark fins fitted-in cut-side up. No more candid shots of diners taking photos of Vietnamese waiters cutting the still-beating heart out of a cobra because they think it will make them virile. Our acquiescence to personal proclivities for such meaningless death mirrors our tacit acceptance of the technically legitimate and even outright illegal networks for wildlife trafficking. That cavalier attitude towards non-human species has now made a significant impact on cities all over the world. No more Michael Sorkin.
Aggrandising trophy hunting and ‘gun play’ as fun events for Western tourists legitimises the massive, extinction-scale animal trafficking industry that supplies China’s new capitalist class with live animals to be eaten for status or traditional-medicinal purposes. Disposable income now buys disposable species. The soon to be extinguished pangolin is the most trafficked animal on earth. Live animals imported for food, medicine and items for home decor are sold in wet markets throughout Asia where they are kept in close proximity to bats. The coronavirus that causes SARS is thought to have jumped from a horseshoe bat to a palm civet before it spilled over to humans. MERS, another coronaviral disease, started with a fruit bat. And it is likely that SARS-CoV-2 (the organism behind COVID-19) started in a bat and then mutated in a pangolin before being ‘caught’ by a human. Those evolutions were not ‘natural’ in the common sense; they could never have happened without the physical structures and practices of the global wild animal market.
Despite the vivid image presented by the my friend’s death was not a piece of some gone-wrong butterfly effect when a young woman in China ate a bat. He was caught in a web of aggressions and vulnerabilities immediate and remote. His body was susceptible because of ‘underlying conditions’, an ominous term that seems to throw disease causation back onto those with imperfect health. His city, state and federal government delayed supportive action while weighing a false binary argument that we must choose economic stability or valuing human lives. In China, ill-considered urban expansion has compressed bat habitat areas and the effects of climate change are further limiting bat ecosystem resources. This increases intraspecific competition and opportunities for virus transfer and mutation. All the while, the global apparatus for marketing wild animals as commodities sustains a perfect environment for virus spillover from bat to infectious host to human.
As I write this, in New York and other cities around the world, the fortunate are those who are safely trapped in their homes without fear of losing their livelihoods. From that vantage point cities look the same as ever, only more peaceful. Self-isolation cushions the blow of knowing others are facing tragedy: loss of life, loss of jobs, loss of any sense that there are others out there who care for them. Michael Sorkin would have had much to say about that injustice. Without him, we must ask what does it mean to comply with ‘self-distancing’? To what extent are we complicit in this web of the many’s destruction? What can we do about it?
I have a son I would not want to infect with any pathogen, and asthma from allergies that have me uncontrollably coughing even without a viral provocation. Rebelling against the machinations that killed my friend could kill me and more of those I love. Is this an apex of control when we cannot band together to protest against the chaos thrust upon us by the apparatus of inequitable wealth? We need new mechanisms of resistance. We need to build them in honour of our lost friends.