Solar Power isn't Feasible!

Solar Power isn't Feasible!
This cartoon was on the cover of the book "SolarGas" by David Hoye. It echoes the Sharp Solar slogan "Last time I checked nobody owned the sun!"

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Pockets of Peasants in Egyptian Cities, and the Promise of Urban Eco-Villages

("Today's shepherds with their flock... " To the "urban semi-peasant" in an age of sprawl and urbanization this is the modern "pastoral symphony". These children pose for the camera while their sheep graze on the Manshiyet Nasser meadow. Photo: T.H.Culhane)

"...underdevelopment creates specific structures, different from capitalism and from each other"

-- Harriet Friedman 1986, "Post-script: small commodity production," Labour, Capital and Society, Vol. 19, No. 1 p.121, Emphasis in Original)

In this spontaneous post I would like to reflect on what I believe is a vast potential for creating robust sustainable urban eco-villages in the slums and shanty-towns of the world.

My theoretical argument comes from an application of "rural" peasant studies to my work on the ground in the "informal" urban community of the Zabaleen in Cairo. The title of the post, and many of the arguments herein, come from Daniel Sicular's article in the journal World Development (Vol. 19, No. 2/3 pp. 137-161, 1991), "Pockets of Peasants in Indonesian Cities: The Case of Scavengers".

The central point that Sicular starts his paper with (following Harriet Friedmann's exhortation) is that we must "bring back the 'central insights' of the development literature which have [Friedmann says] '...been lost in its evolution into a theory of the capitalist world-system (Friedmann, 1986, p. 121)'. In effect, world-systems theory homogenizes the conceptualization of the process of development into the elaboration of a single, though differentiated captalist system."

The danger of any 'totalizing discourse' is that it blinds us so that we can no longer "see the trees for the forest" -- a reversal of the usual myopia. We try to mash individual narratives into the straitjacket of "le grand narrative" -- the very same Grand Narrative that Francois Lyotard persistently opposed with his attacks of the 'universalist' claims of the Enlightenment.

The idea that we are all on the way to becoming moderns, tied into the market system and engaging in relations with each other and with objects and commodities according to the logic of Capital, and that a city such as Cairo is a totality that can be understood through this lens, has been challenged by authors such as Timothy Mitchell (see "Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity", University of California Press, 2002).

As Bruno LaTour famously wrote, "We have never been modern" (Harvard University Press, 1993).

And there is no such thing as "the backward Egyptian" or "a backward country" -- only pockets of everyday resistance to being swallowed up by systems that hold out illusions of progress while concealing threats of oppression and exploitation. I think you will find that many "poor communities" are actually the richest in possibilities for real progressive change. But I don't want to generalize -- that would defeat my purpose. I want to speak particularly about the Zabaleen community, which Fahmi and Sutton (2006) remind us "live on Cairo's physical, economic and institutional fringes, whilst maintaining ties to their rural origins." (p. 811).

The Zabaleen are unique in Cairo because of the way they conceive of "environmental assets" (which we call "garbage"), "which they have converted into economic and social assets." Fahmy and Sutton warn that the a la mode "privatisation approach" that is supposed to be the panacea for poor countries run by inefficient dictatorships actually "fails to allow people to build incrementally on technologically appropriate iindigenous patterns of living. The Zabaleen experience demonstrates the strength and vitality of community knowledge as a resource for building environmental, financial, and community-based assets and should not be discarded as worthless and out-of-date." (p. 820).

In fact the Zabaleen are already operating in a "privatised manner" -- they have always conducted their business as small household businesses contracting through the Wahis in a kind of Private-Public Partnership (PPP). So "privatisation" as an antidote to the "ineffeciencies" of their activities is a red herring. What "privatisation" as a policy is actually doing is consolidating and centralizing power among merely the big multinational private companies and their rich Egyptian investors (Ahmed and Ali, 2004, Mitchell 2002). What the Zabaleen community needs is simply investment in clean, efficient environmental technologies and technical support to aid in and dignify their small scale entrepreneurial activities.

Research on the Zabaleen mode of production has emphasized "the uniqueness of the Zabaleen community and their comparability with dynamic squatter settlements elsewhere" and suggested "the need to recognize the symbiosis between domestic and productive activities of the Zabaleen" wherein housing is significant for "micro-enterprise recycling activies" in a situation that is "similar to rural models of production and consumption with a strong emphasis on household subsistence, interlinked to kinship and social networks. The home for garbage collectors therebye becomes not merely a container of human life but an essential shelter for those life-sustaining productive activities as in rural areas, where home and workplace are frequently combined and intimitely interrelated." (p. 833).

Sounds like a description of the "new urbanism" sweeping the "eco-city" movement, doesn't it? But planning norms in Egypt "enshrined in zoning laws, insist on the separation of manufacturing, retailing and comercial uses from residential areas." And the "urban poor" are not considered for "green city" initiatives, which are considered the domain of populations on the upslope end of the hypothetical "Environmental Kuznets Curve". To get to a point of environmental sustainability, we are told, the poor have to first claw their way up the social ladder, become "moderns" and then join the inchoate (and inchoherent) Egyptian environmental movement. In fact, this nascent environmental awareness becoming popular in Egypt is being used as an excuse to get rid of the Zabaleen -- to banish them and their "filthy activities" outside the city -- despite the fact that they are the most effective recyclers in the world -- and turn their hard-won real estate into gentrified landscaped gated communities on the road to the new airport.

The meta-narrative that concerns me today is the application to Cairo of a naive cultural narrative schema that hangs all urban poor communities on the same eschatological story line, as though we were all characters in a Hollywood version of Joseph Campbell's "Hero's Journey". The master narrative tells of a universal journey that ends with us abandoning our "backwards" practices -- it tells us to stop hunting and gathering to feed our pigs and other livestock that "don't belong" in the city anyway, to stop our peasant modes of production that encourage us to continue to try and rely on unprocessed, uncommodified raw materials supplied by "Nature" (or on scavenged production residuals that have been dumped into the waste stream of the global commons - the new "nature" that environs the urban masses) and to rush out to the Hypermarket to embrace products like the "Olympic Electric Hot Water Heaters" that the billboards towering over the slums of Cairo state proudly but falsely "will provide heat for all of Egypt".

The notion that we will all jump happily onto the "energy ladder" once the market brings it our way, moving in delayed but certain lock-step from the biomass rung to the fossil-fuel rung and on up to the electric apogee (ultimately powered, we are told, by "our friend the atom"), abandoning animals and plants for machines and plastics, is a narrative that suits the State and suits the Firm, but does little to help the urban poor figure out what energy mix works best for them in the face of rising costs, rising population, decaying infrastructure and degraded environmental services. And the narrative is belied by what is happening on the ground.

Marx argued that small-scale farmers who rely on household labor cannot compete with larger capitalist firms, so he predicted the extinction of the peasantry. Lenin saw self-sufficient communities as sources of "spontaneous capitalism" and argued that they would gradually transform themselves from peasants to semi-proletarians and then into proletarians and/or commercial farmers.

But history has seen not only a stubborn "persistence of the peasants" (Grossman, 1998) but the emergence of "semi-peasants" within the proletariat. What is more, in slums and shantytowns I have visited from Los Angeles to Johannesberg to Jakarta to Guatemala to Cairo, I have seen the maintenance and/or development of what can only be described as urban "peasant" self-sufficiency.

In "developed" countries like the U.S. we see part of this population catered to by publications such as "Home Power Magazine" and websites like "", but they are usually the kind of "off-the-grid" rebels who can afford personal wind-mills, compost toilets and solar panels. Hardly the urban poor. In "developing countries" (and in the ubiquitous slums of the West) low income families, particularly those who have immigrated from the countryside in recent decades, share traditional techniques for managing livestock in the city, growing horticultural produce on rooftops and balconies and tiny lawn plots, recycling and "scavenging" for useful inputs from their environment (I like to call it neo-hunting and gathering).

The existence of a neo-urban peasantry (or semi-peasantry -- but then, traditional peasants, as Mitchell argues, have usually been semi-proletarian too...) is something Chayanov's logic would have predicted (their famed capacity for "self-exploitation", he said, even gives them the ability to theoretically 'out-compete commercial enterprises, Moberg reminds us in his review of Grossman 1998 in the Journal of Political Ecology).

It also gives them the ability to create the most sustainable eco-villages.

And this would be not because they are city folk who have suddenly become concerned about "THE" environment, wanting to "go green", nor because they are Rousseauian imports to the city who bring with them a "love of nature" and an "understanding of harmonious living with all things Great and Small.

I'm not suggesting that "the urban poor", as a class, don't care about THE environment, of course, nor am I doubting that there are many urban poor families who share what we call "green" values, I want you to know. I'm friends with many individuals and families in the slums that do think about what they can do to make the world a better place. Contrary to popular belief, the poor I know are not "just concerned with putting food on the table." In fact some of the financially poorest people I know not only spend relatively little time thinking about getting food for themselves (except insofar as they take personal delight, for example, in baking their own delicious bread in rooftop clay ovens they made themselves) but rather much more time thinking about being good hosts providing comfort and food for foreign guests, and about finding opportunities to improve themselves and guarentee education and opportunities for their children.

But on the whole, it must be said that there is no more utopianism and environmental philanthropy among the poor than there is among those who are well off. What there is, however, is a logic of production that is fluid, that doesn't "stick" to the confident line that snakes through history's supposed march from pre-capitalist modes of household reproduction to the triumphant "end of history" where everything has been commodified.

Where neo-Marxists, such as Deere and De Janvry, talked compellingly about rural cultivators who were in fact "disguised" semi-proletarians (1981) we also find urban laborers who can also be described as, in fact, "disguised semi-peasants". But as Moberg (Ibid) states, "the peasant question is fraught with practical and political implications that far exceed the semantics of the debate." And this is the very issue Mitchell deals with in his analysis of Egypt, when he criticizes the way we use language to "frame" (in the sense described by Irving Goffman) the dynamic realities of Egypt.

Mitchell says,

"Fields of analysis often develop a convention for introducing their object. Such tropes come to seem too obvious and straightforward to question. The somewhat poetic imagery favored by writings on Egyptian development seldom lasts beyond the opening paragraph, and the text moves on quickly to the serious business of social or economic argument. Yet the visual imagery of an opening paragraph can establish the entire relationship between the textual analysis and its object. Such relationships are never simple. Objects of analysis do not occur as natural phenomena, but are partly formed by the discourse that describes them. The more natural the object appears, the less obvious this discursive manufacture will be." (p. 210)

Such is the problem with describing the urban poor as "urban", as "landless laborers who migrated to the city in search of jobs", as "proletarians", or as small-scale capitalists who merely need established property rights to participate fully in "the market". We might look at development much differently if, for example, we described migrants who come to the "city" from "the countryside" as "nomadic hunters and gatherers, continuing their ageless journey in pursuit of the environmental services that sustain all life, following the seasonal changes of natural, social, economic, cultural and economic capital that tend to pool in areas for a few generations before being redistributed by the usual natural and social dynamics and upheavals."

If we forgot about our preconceived notions of "the city" for a moment, and forget about our definitions of "Nature" and thought only of families, of organisms, in pursuit of services and opportunities that despite all our attempts to rationalize them, still ebb and flow in time and spatial geography, we might begin to understand the logic that drives many poor communities like the Zabaleen. It is a logic that we all possess but grow blind to when linguistic tropes throw us into the slipstream of The Grand Narrative. The logic says, "look around you and see how you might best transform and/or work with your surroundings, your environment, to make your life better." Does it involve catching the rain water in winter and storing it instead of depending on the water vendor's tap all the time? Does it imply making use of previously used "grey water" to flush your toilet or water your plants rather than paying for and wasting drinking quality water to remove fecal material? Does it suggest not using water for sanitation at all, but taking advantage of the nutrients in "body wastes" to fertilize fruit trees that can sustain people or livestock? Or of using waste material to make biogas for cooking, heating and powering motors?

Does the logic of transformative action suggest taking advantage of the sunlight that hits your roof to do the heating, the drying, and even the production of cooling and electricity, rather than depending on "the grid" to supply you your energy?

And wouldn't an enframing that defies facile binary categories -- the either/or terms such as "peasant" or "proletarian" or "rural" or "urban" in favor of "both/and" hybrid terminology (Soja 2000) encourage us to see more nuanced mixes of solution sets -- a little municipal energy and water mixed with some self-provisioned energy and water, with households shifting the nature of the mix, the composition of their portfolio with changes in "the market" and "the environment".

Why do we believe the urban poor are, or would be, any less sophisticated in rational decision making navigating a volatile and ever changing system of supplies and demands than the clever day traders with diverse portfolios we give so much adulation? From my observations, but for the absence of educational opportunities and of clear information and market/environmental signals (information assymetries abound in poor communities) , communities like the Zabaleen would already be behaving like sophisticated wall street traders but with a much richer data set -- one that includes both capitalist and non-capitalist formations.

Perhaps Bruno Latour should write a book called "we have never been urban".

While I touch on this question in my thesis, it is not my topic (I'm fairly narrowly focussed on hot water). But if I were to do a new study it would be about the industrial ecology potential of the Zabaleen -- how to rethink urbanization through an urban peasant optic -- the pursuit of autonomy and self-sufficiency.

Such literature does exist for Indonesia -- Sicular's article on garbage scavengers as noncapitalist producers in a Third World City makes the argument that they are "structurally similar to peasant producers". And Grossman's "Political Ecology of Bananas", along with Mitchell's critique of Egyptian Power politics points out that all of these "categories" are predicated on reciprocities that are often hidden -- as de Janvry and others noted, peasants provide the necessary "subsidy to capital" that makes capitalism possible, while capitalism provides tools and structures that make so called "self-sufficiency" possible (how can one be considered "off the grid" if a factory "on-the-grid" had to produce the solar panel you use to power your autonomous utopia? Or as I've discussed many times with my bicycle afficianado friends Andy Posner and Ron Milam, how can we claim to be "going back to nature" riding bicycles when a bicycle is one of the most sophisticated pieces of high efficiency technology ever invented? The tensions between independence and involvement in "the system" are only (partially) resolved when we posit multiple overlapping, mutually dependent systems. There is no "THE SYSTEM" to remove yourself from or to embrace.

As Mitchell says, "the history of rural Egypt has never been outside what is called the history of capitalism. At the end of the twentieth century... there was no self-contained "subsistence sector" in simple articulation with a sector external to itself called the market. There would be no coherent way to draw a line between the two. The difficulty in finding any analytic or descriptive method of separating the noncapitalist from the capitalist was what brought the theories of 'the articulation of modes of production,' as this problem became known, to a halt."(p. 269).

Instead we have "almost infinitely multiplex and variable relations" with a large number of "variant forms... involving links at several levels, heterogeneous in form and content" and the policy implications of this are that "by taking seriously the subsistence household as a form of production and examining the methods of articulation between the household and capitalist sectors... [we] uncover the diversity of strategies with which rural populations try to resist or accomodate the penetration of capital, without reducing the phenomenon to the stubbornness of tradition or a mere delay in the process of proletarianizations driven by the global explansion of capital." (p. 268).

By embracing the paradox of a "constitutive outside" that is "an interior-exterior, something both marginal and central, simultaneously the condition of possibility of the economy and the condition of its impossibility" (p. 291) we make possible the "rethinking" of the city in more humane terms and the creation of a truly ecological city.

The problem with a recent National Renewable Energy Authority study looks at renewable energy and its future in Egypt is that its optic is completely homogeneous -- it perpetuates the modernist fantasy that Egypt is an undifferentiated whole responding to THE market in a coherent way. It acts as if everybody was tapped into the same market. Social theorists who champion privatization read Hernando De Soto's "The Mystery of Capital" and believe that the urban poor of Cairo can bootstrap themselves into a better lifestyle once they get formal property rights and can connect to "the free market" without considering political and historical relations that may never permit this. The NREA report confidently concludes that "the lack of access to the technology and maintenance facilities is not relevant from their point of view" and favors the usual mantra of merely continuing down the failed path of "structural adjustment", supposedly removing financial and economic barriers (remove the subsidies, lower the tarifs). All fine and good in theory, but Mitchell points out that Egypt has "a politically constructed system of inequality which decentralization and privatisation programs would only reinforce" (p.229) and that "Decentralization" (as conceived in political terms) "was likely to do no more than shift exploitation from one agency to another."(p 228).

These macroeconomic policy decisions ignore the resilience of people and the benefits if "physical power" was decentralized instead of merely "political power", and if the sources of capital -- natural as well as financial -- were not just redistributed but allowed to be accessed through "distributed generation". Policy in the third world ignores Community Energy Models (CEM) and distributed generation models that say "sources of water and electricity and fuel should not be centrally supplied, but should rather be created in as many sites as possible." This is what the California "million solar roofs" initiative is all about, for example. If urban rooftops were conceived through the eyes of a "semi-peasant" as spaces for "harvesting sunlight and water and processing heat" and urban toilets were seen as spaces for harvesting fertilizer, and all these environmental inputs were combined to grow food and make value added products recycled from urban "wastes", this kind of decentralization would shift exploitation from people to a better exploitation of a rediscovered "Nature".

Nobody has adequately explained to me why urban biogas is not supported or researched in Egypt (though studies have been done on rural biogas) when the Zabaleen have requested it. Urban biogas production has met with great success in Pune, India at the ARTI. For that matter urban solar and urban wind and urban anything-that-is-progressive have all been neglected. Dr. Salah El Haggar said in Egyptian Oil and Gas Magazine that Cairo lacks the roof space for efficient solar harvesting and he was correct when considering certain neighborhoods (like Zamalek and downtown and the newer developments with highrise buildings). But officials misunderstand Dr. El Haggar through the prejudice of their own definitions of "the city" and their conception of "urban form", and now everybody accepts it as a truism -- "solar energy is not appropriate for Cairo". But is this really so? Our research says no.

I claim that when you actually visit neighborhoods in Cairo and see the heights of buildings and count the number of families in them you find lots of areas with great solar irradiation potential. But nobody has done the research. (I may do it as a post-doc, and in my thesis I do have the heights of buildings and the number of occupants for 463 households, so that is a start).

Everybody takes the results of one study or report and says, "oh, okay, they've concluded it doesn't work." But as we know as academics, sample size is everything.

Who is this proverbial "they"? Are they representative? Can they speak for all Cairenes?

Could there be something else going on, hidden and out of view, behind the main road and the facade of development rhetoric that needs to be pulled into the light?

When you find even one household, like that of Mina at the edge of Manshiyet Nasser, whose family still heats water on a campfire (Kanoon) outside and resists being hooked up to city services, (as an act of resistance to rising costs?), you see what the literature has been saying about the peasant logic "refusing to go away" (for more on this topic see De Janvry, Alain. 1981. The Agrarian Question and Reformism in Latin America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, Scott, James. 1985. Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance. New Haven: Yale University Press and, more recently The Political Ecology of Bananas: Contract Farming, Peasants, and Agrarian Change in the Eastern Caribbean. By Lawrence S. Grossman.

Everybody knows the Zabaleen recycle waste, and there has been study on the potential for turning it into compost. The Zabaleen get a lot of deserved press as "environmental heroes". But nobody talks about why the whole "green package" of sustainable development is not being offered to the Zabaleen community, despite their interest in it.

And the irony is that this whole package was actually demonstrated by Cairo University's visionary architect Magda Ebeid (who studied with legendary "housing for the poor" architect Hassan Fathy!) at the AUC Desert Development Center. She built it there decades ago, and took me to see it in 2003. She built a model low cost home with Photovoltaics, Solar hot water, biogas, green passive solar architecture with trombe walls and Mashrabiya and other air convection designs, energy efficient lighting, compost toilets, greywater recycling, rooftop gardens, microlivestock, and small scale wind. Similarly, Dr. Salah Arafa took me to a biogas conference at his Bassissa Solar Village in the Sinai where he and his community -based NGO of displaced Delta farmers built all the same options into their model development. But these experiments all occurred in rural spaces. Why have so few people besides us tried to introduce the same concepts into the burgeoning shanty towns of Cairo? Why do we see so much effort to re conceive the city, to conceive of "green cities" and implement them in places like South Africa and India (and now China and even Abu Dhabi!) but not in the cultural capital of the Middle East, the birthplace of high civilization, at one time the center of the developed world -- Egypt? Where are the William McDonough style projects of the Egyptian government and private industry and development organizations? Why has Hassan Fathy's landmark work on behalf of the poor been allowed to turn into a bourgeois phenomenon, and why has there been no talk about a true Urban Eco-Village concept for Cairo?

Is the tourist mecca of "Al- Gouna" on the red sea really the only "industrial ecology" initiative Egypt can conceive of -- a disneyfied ersatz utopia with a few laudable environmental technologies meant to impress the chic eco-tourist concerned about his carbon footprint?

Can we not convince the international and local community of investors, developers and planners that in the semi-peasant spaces of Cairo's urban poor lies the greatest promise of an integrated urban ecology?

In a very real sense the Zabaleen already operate outside of normal Egyptian society but within an international framework; they should be immune to many of Egypt's macro economic problems since they have direct (though often informal) articulations to the world market for garbage and to development NGOs. They are already in many practical senses more self-sufficient than many other urban dwellers (though dependent on donor agencies -- Fahmi and Sutton 2006). Why have development experts more or less ignored their potential to be a best practice model for industrial ecology and for the creation of Urban Eco-Villages?

There will be challenges, it is true: Our experiences building solar hot water systems in Cairo showed us that even if the cost of a renewable energy system were partially or fully subsidized -- if it was zero or nominal (to engage the consumer and give a feeling of ownership) , without adequate cultural contextualization the whole effort to provide "green technology" to the residents of the city will likely fall apart because of preconceptions of what "the good life" entails embedded in modernist rhetoric; we have seen that this is possibly more true for historically urban communities like Darb El Ahmar who have always felt the possibility of moving vertically up the social ladder than for the marginalized Zabaleen; our survey results show the Zabaleen demonstrating the highest willingness to pay and invest in renewable energy technologies. Anecdotally we have engaged in enough personal interviews with the bourgeoisie to doubt they will embrace "green tech" without cultural change; we know it to be true of some the residents we know in upscale Zamalek -- in fact when our team of Zabaleen green collar associates were invited to speak on a popular radio show ironically called "Practice what you Preach" they were praised over the airwaves by the host. But when they offered to build her a system for her roof she said, "what? Me use a solar heater? Oh, no, no, in Zamalek we use electric heaters -- they are much nicer! Solar heaters are good for the poor, but... well, not for US!"

Our experience and survey results suggest to us that the best place to start a true environmental movement and create a full featured urban eco-village is among the people who see the city through a different lens and operate according to a more flexible logic.

It may seem strange to mix peasant studies and what is often conceived of as rural political ecology with interest in renewable energy and urban environmentalism, but I think they are oft neglected bed partners whose complementary dimensions at a time when rural migration to cities has not been slowed by Egypt's desert development policies and is still increasing may explain a lot of what we are seeing. Perhaps, as some theorists suggest, some of the practices of people in communities like the Zabaleen can be explained as what Scott called "Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance." But I believe it is not at all the "resistance to change" that the modernists so often accuse the "traditional" Egyptians of. It is perhaps a resistance to employ the wrong optic, the wrong technologies, the wrong way of engaging with the world. My experience shows me that the promise of an advanced eco-village on the cutting edge of social change is already deeply engrained in the progressive philosophy of Cairo's environmental heroes -- the Zabaleen Trash Recyclers.

And all we need to do is to help support their vision with the best of what the capitalist mode of production and the market has to offer in terms of "industrial ecology and renewable energy technology".

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