A Call to Humility

filed under: 
Issue: 

Years ago when I used to drive by car from Prague to our country cottage in Eastern Bohemia, the journey from the city centre to the sign that marked the city limits took about 15 minutes, after which came meadows, forests, fields and villages. These days the exact same journey takes a good 40 minutes or more, and actually, it is impossible to know whether I have left the city or not.

What was until recently clearly recognisable as the city is now losing its boundaries and with them its identity. It has become a huge overgrown ring of something I can’t find a word for. It is not a city (as I understand the term), nor suburbs, let alone a village. Apart from anything else, it lacks streets or squares. There is just a random scattering of enormous single-storey warehouses, supermarkets, hypermarkets, cars and furniture marts, petrol stations, eateries, gigantic car parks, isolated high-rise blocks to be let as offices, depots of every kind, and collections of family homes that are admittedly close together but are otherwise desperately remote.

And in between all that – and this is something that bothers me most of all – are large tracts of land that aren’t anything, by which I mean that they’re not meadows, fields, woods, jungles or meaningful human settlements. Here and there, in a space that is hard to define, one can find an architecturally beautiful or original building, but it is as solitary as the proverbial tomb – it is unconnected with anything else; it is not adjacent to anything or even remote from anything; it simply stands there. The fact is that our cities are being permitted without control to destroy the surrounding natural landscape, replacing it with some sort of gigantic agglomeration that renders life nondescript. So where has all this woeful development come from, and why does it go on getting worse? How is it possible that humans treat in such a senseless fashion both the landscape that surrounds them and the very planet they have been given to inhabit? We know that we are behaving in a suicidal manner, yet we go on doing it.

How can that be? We are living in the first truly globalcivilisation. This means that whatever comes into existence can very quickly span the whole world. We are also living in the first atheistic civilisation – in other words, a civilisation that has lost its connection with the infinite and eternity. For that reason it prefers short-term profit to long-term gain. However, the most dangerous aspect of this global atheistic civilisation is its pride. The pride of someone who is driven by the very logic of his wealth to stop respecting the contributions of Nature and our forebears, to stop respecting it on principle and respect it only as a further potential source of profit. And indeed, why should a developer go to the trouble of building a warehouse with several storeys when he can have as much land as he wants and can therefore build as many single-storey warehouses as he likes?

Why should he worry about whether his building suits the locality in which it is built, so long as it can be reached by the shortest route and can boast a gigantic car park beside it? What is it to him that between his site and his neighbour’s there is a wasteland? And what is it to him, after all, that from an aeroplane the city more and more resembles a tumour metastasising in all directions? Why should he get worked up over a few dozen hectares that he carves out of the soil that many still regard as the natural framework of their homeland? I sense behind all of this not only a globally spreading short-sightedness, but also the swollen self-consciousness of this civilisation, whose basic attributes include the supercilious idea that we yet know we’ll soon find out because we know how to go about it.

We are convinced that this supposed omniscience of ours, which proclaims the staggering progress of science and technology and rational knowledge in general, permits us to serve anything that is demonstrably useful, or that is simply a source of measurable profit; anything that induces growth and more growth and still more growth, including the growth of agglomerations. 

But with the cult of measurable profit, proven progress and visible usefulness disappears respect for mystery and along with it humble reverence for everything we shall never measure and know, not to mention the vexed question of the infinite and eternal, which were until recently the most important horizons of our actions. We have totally forgotten what all previous civilisations knew: that nothing is self-evident. I believe that the recent financial and economic crisis was of great importance and that in its ultimate essence it was actually a very edifying signal to the contemporary world. Most economists relied directly or indirectly on the idea that the world, including human conduct, is more or less understandable, scientifically describable and hence predictable. Market economics and its entire legal framework counted on our knowing what it means to be human and what aims we pursue, on understanding the logic behind the actions of banks or firms, what the shareholding public does and what one may expect from some particular individual or community.

And all of a sudden none of that applied. Irrationality leered at us from all the stock-exchange screens. And even the most fundamentalist economists, who– having intimate access to the truth – had been convinced the invisible hand of the market knew what it was doing, had suddenly to admit that they had been taken by surprise. I hope and trust that the elites of today’s world will realise what this signal is telling us. In fact it is nothing extraordinary, nothing that a perceptive person did not know long ago. It is a warning against the disproportionate self-assurance and pride of modern civilisation. Human behaviour is not totally explicable as many inventors of economic theories and concepts believe; and the behaviour of firms or institutions or entire communities is even less so.

Naturally, after this crisis a thousand and one theorists will emerge to describe precisely how and why it happened and how to prevent it happening in future. But this will not be a sign that they have understood the message that the crisis sent us. The opposite, more likely: it will simply be a further emanation of that disproportionate self-assurance that I have been speaking of. I regard the recent crisis as a very small and very inconspicuous call to humility. A small and inconspicuous challenge for us not to take everything automatically for granted. Strange things are happening and will happen. Not to bring oneself to admit it is the path to hell. Strangeness, unnaturalness, mystery, inconceivability have been shifted out of the world of serious thought into the dubious closets of suspicious people.

Until they are released and allowed to return to our minds, things will not go well. The modern pride that I refer to did not manifest itself in architecture only recently. In the interwar period many otherwise brilliant avant-garde architects already shared the opinion that confident and rational reflection was the key to a new approach to human settlement. And so they started planning various happy cities with separate zones for housing, sport, entertainment, commerce and hospitality, all linked by a logical infrastructure.

Those architects had succumbed to the aberrant notion that an enlightened brain is capable of devising the ideal city. Nothing of the sort was created, however. Bold urban projects proved to be one thing, while life turned out to be something else.