Making the mos(s)t of trees? Political and ontological implications of ‘smart’ responses to urban air pollution

Authors: James Palmer*, University of Oxford, Marion Ernwein, University of Oxford
Topics: Cultural and Political Ecology, Environment, Anthropocene
Keywords: smart environment, smart cities, urban air pollution, non-human labour, neoliberal environmental governance
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/12/2018
Start / End Time: 1:20 PM / 3:00 PM
Room: Napoleon C1, Sheraton 3rd Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


This paper interrogates the ontological and political implications of ‘smart’ responses to urban air pollution, focusing on CityTree, an innovation that purports to clean urban air by combining the air-filtering capacities of moss with ‘smart’ technology. Though CityTree comprises a screen-like ‘wall’ of moss, this paper argues that its efficiency is rendered tangible by invoking the ontological fixity of ‘the tree’, as a charismatic category of vegetal (urban) life. Each CityTree is said to possess the air-cleansing capacity of 275 ‘normal’ trees. This construction of equivalence legitimises using an ‘intelligent biological air filter’ over ‘normal’ trees, and justifies resorting to a private smart-tech company for ‘greening’ the city. Yet CityTree also disrupts the ontological fixity of the ‘tree’ by imagining ‘tree-ness’ as a set of capacities, rather than a biologically-determined state. Thus, tree-ness can be exhibited by other biological entities; for CityTree, this is ensured by disciplining the liveliness of moss such that it performs one specific function only – the cleansing of urban air. Moreover, this is achieved by investing moss with ‘smart’ sensory capacities that extend, rather than curtail, its vegetal intelligence. These new configurations of biological and computational intelligence raise questions about the forms of ‘non-human labour’ enrolled in efforts to tackle air pollution, and offer novel pathways for reinforcing neoliberal environmental governance regimes. CityTree thus represents a ‘monstrous’ device for extending the entitlement of private actors to convey public goods within these regimes, and for diverting public attention away from air pollution’s more structural, political-economic origins.

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