I grew up in a London of brick houses and council estates, still pocked with bomb craters. It was anything but a utopia, don’t get me wrong, but there was always a sense of possibility. That city has been erased by the Great Gentrification, gleaming and greedy. Sublimely indifferent to history and those it excludes, the Great Gentrification has turned London into the Tyrell Corporation of Bladerunner (director Ridley Scott, 1982).
Everywhere now there are cranes, just like Shanghai, rarely seeming to work but just hanging in the sky like vultures, marking gentrification’s next step forward. They surround even the finished towers like The Shard. I walked under this 1004 feet (306 metre) high glass pinnacle and became dizzy when I looked up at the peak, where a 500 ton steel spire dominates the cityscape below. Designed to be a ‘vertical city’ by architect Renzo Piano, The Shard is supposed to evoke the sailing ships of London’s past.
I did feel the echo of the era of sail going by the former Battersea Power Station. Once hailed as a ‘brick cathedral’, it was decommissioned as coal-powered energy source in 1975. Briefly intended to be a cultural centre by the Greater London Council, that plan went down when Mrs Thatcher abolished the GLC for such ideas. It was another power station at Bankside that morphed into Tate Modern, which is sponsored by BP. Today, Battersea is marooned amidst block after block of ‘upscale mixed use’ developments. Local people can no longer see the river.
The sight of the largest brick building in Europe lost among the glass and plastic reminded me of Turner’s lovely painting, The Fighting Temeraire, which evoked the transformation of the Industrial Revolution, just as Battersea is a monument to the financialization of everything. The Temeraire fought at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, ensuring that the great 19th century empire would be British, not French, whatever one makes of that. In the painting, the old three-master, riding high in the water without her guns and crew to weigh her down, is being ignominiously towed by the steam tugboat to be broken up.
Turner’s painting was exhibited in 1839, the year that William Henry Fox Talbot figured out how to make photographs. It seems curiously divided. On the left, the depiction of actual events, which would soon and forever become the domain of photography. On the right, the dramatic sunset evokes what was to become the future of painting, notably Monet’s famous Impression, Sun Rising (1872). Light and color are, in this view, what painting is to become.
The end of the era of sail was also, as we now know, the beginning of human-created climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels. The tugboat is the future in more than one sense, if we see it as a symbol of fossil fuel capitalism. It transformed human history. In so doing, it changed the conditions of life for every human and non-human entity on the planet. The dust from coal smoke helped make sunsets newly beautiful in the Romantic era in which Turner worked. One reason we find climate change so hard to deal with is that we find its effects beautiful. It’s not Turner’s and Monet’s ‘fault’ but it is real.
London has apparently shaken off the coal era. The blackened buildings of the smog era have been sand-blasted clean and UK emissions have fallen 21% since 1990 due to declining coal use. Again, all is not what it seems. Take into consideration imported goods and the UK ‘s emissions have actually risen over the period by a startling 80%. And air quality in London–like many other European cities–is terrible. State emphasis on using diesel fuel for its reduced CO2 emissions has produced a disaster in terms of nitrogen dioxide and harmful PM2.5 particles. In 2010, this pollution caused over 3300 deaths, a silent 9/11. The most recent high pollution alert on April 10, 2015 was recorded just over the river from The Shard, reaching 8 out of 10. That’s a Beijing ‘airpocalypse’ level.
The new London gentry think themselves insulated from such worries. The Great Gentrification has built an exclusion wall of money around the entire city, like the 700 foot Wall in Game of Thrones.
Brixton, scene of anti-Thatcher uprisings in the 1980s, is described now as ‘long’ gentrified. The new frontier is in Haringey and Tottenham, scene of the 2011 riots. Like Paris, New York and other global one percent cities, London has driven out its wildings (what the nineteenth century called ‘the dangerous classes’) but also its middle classes.
Central London residences cost on average over £1.5 million ($2.3 million). As I walked down such a street, I was driven off the pavement by a crane lowering two fully-grown trees into a newly-expanded garden. I looked around and realized that another house was having a hot tub installed. Still a third was having a vast steel RSJ hauled into place to support a now-ubiquitous loft extension. It’s almost as if some parts of London have hit puberty and are having a growth spurt, so many are the new third storeys. The trees might make the air feel cleaner but they don’t affect the dangerous microparticles. No doubt, like their Beijing counterparts, air purifiers will become the next ‘must-have’ amenity. Will it feel like a ‘win’ if you have to wear a mask to go outside?
What does trouble our new gentry, if not being able to breathe the air? A famous writer I met was anxiously waiting on a TV adaptation so that she could keep up with the mortgage payments on her Georgian townhouse. A partner in a law firm confides that his fashionably large family will generate such a volume of private school fees and university tuition that he envisages working till 70. By all means, #firstworldproblems. But this is the true worry of the new gentry. That even they won’t be able to keep up with the richest of the rich, the people with what is called ‘fuck you money’. For those outside the Wall, the worry is more familiar–that debt has fucked them.
Behind and above all this in the milky-white smog is the question posed by climate scientist Brad Werner: ‘Is Earth f**ked’? His answer: ‘More or less’. Battersea Power Station was built next to the river so the coal could be unloaded easily. Will its new luxury development end up under the rising waters caused by burning all that coal, first in London now in China, with The Shard still poking its nose above the flood?