Mutualistic Cities, Chapter Two:
Imagining Urban Mutualisms

In the first part of this collaborative series, Professors Mark Williams and Jan Zalasiewicz described the extraordinary recent history – and the future – of urbanization on Planet Earth. Mark and Jan sketched the phenomenal demands cities place, and will place, on the Earth’s energy resources. In this instalment, Dr. Killian Quigley considers the challenges and opportunities – conceptual, ethical, and imaginative – presented by the idea of mutualistic urbanism.

'High density residential building in Hong Kong' by leungchopan. Sourced via Shutterstock, ID: 301162043.

Urbanization is accelerating, and human consumption of the world’s energy is intensifying: through Mark and Jan’s geoscientific lens, the junction of these phenomena has become arrestingly clear. I’m particularly struck by their claim that, in this century, our species may come to use the yearly equivalent of “the above-ground harvestable energy of all the world’s vegetation.”Imagining this degree of biotic dominance, and knowing myself party to the domination, discombobulate me.

Mark, Jan, and I are conversing across disciplinary boundaries – between palaeobiology and literature – in order to understand how cities interact with the planet, and to ponder future urbanisms. We’re working with the idea, and the metaphor, of mutualism, a term the Oxford English Dictionary defines as a “relationship existing between two organisms of different species which contribute mutually to each other’s well-being.” Mutualisms abound on Earth. Here’s just one: in Borneo, there lives a kind of carnivorous pitcher plant (Nepenthes hemsleyana) that makes a roost for woolly bats (Kerivoula hardwickii) while benefiting in turn from the fertilizing effects of the bats’ feces.2

Our question, then: what would it mean for cities to relate mutualistically to the global biome? For many individuals, and for many cultures, this might entail a transformation in imagination, a revolution in self-consciousness that empowers – or indeed compels – persons to evaluate their own behaviours, lives, and communities fundamentally in terms of the salubriousness or deleteriousness of their ecological influence. To spur such transformation, it may be useful to expand self-consciousness to something akin to species-consciousness, if not ecosystem-consciousness. Doing so would involve confronting key facets of the human profile as it has developed over time: as increasingly urban, as colonial, as voracious, as parasitic, and so forth.

Of course, any attempt to frame thought in a scale as comprehensive as this – Homo Urbanus,3 if you like – will be dogged by the hazard of trivializing crucial disparities between human communities. These include disparities in ecological power, and in capacities to effect ecological change. Cultivating imaginative structures that can simultaneously prompt species- (and larger-) scale mentation and do justice to the granular realities of individual- and community-scale experience may be among the knottier – and more valuable – ambitions of interdisciplinary scholarship. If it’s true that a “disconnect”4 exists between scientific senses of urban nature and humanistic and social-scientific senses thereof, then the problem of speaking across scales may prove pivotal for bringing diverse disciplinary approaches into something like harmony.

It is vital – and inevitable – that discussions and speculations regarding future urbanisms focus as much, or more, on places like Kinshasa, Lagos, and Jakarta as on such so-called “alpha world cities” as London and New York.5 Such a re-centring of the academic and policy conversation might also help accomplish an imaginative and narrative re-centring, one that would find expert witnesses in novels like Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon (2014) and films such as Alain Gomis’s Félicité (2017). “The future,” the writer and critic Esthie Hugo has stated, “is Lagos.”6 It should go without saying, however, that engaging with – and making scholarship of – African and other urbanisms must avoid adopting voyeuristic or moralistic vantages, or iterating hackneyed stereotypes. In the last regard, Neill Blomkamp’s provocative alternate history of Johannesburg, District 9 (2009), and its complex reception from critics, may provide useful points of reference.7

This isn’t to suggest that “Western” cities are exempt from the challenges facing the rest of the world: going debates over the redevelopment of the Los Angeles River represent just one demonstration of this fact.8 In an influential 2006 essay, “Thirteen Ways of Seeing Nature in L.A.,” Jenny Price issued a counterintuitive diagnosis of twenty-first century nature writing in the USA: “nature writers,” she claimed, “need to tell us far more about our everyday lives in the places we actually live.” “What we need,” Price continued, “is a foundational literature that imagines nature not as the opposite of the city but as the basic stuff of modern everyday life.”9

Twelve years on, Price’s argument remains apposite. And by inverting the terms of that argument, one arrives at a similarly unusual, and perhaps similarly helpful, notion: why not think of all city-literature (and city-film, and city-sound, and so on) as nature writing? If we conceive of human habitats – and urban habitats in particular – in contradistinction to “nature,” we are unlikely to ask the sorts of questions, or enact the kinds of changes, that might chart paths toward healthier global futures. By thinking in terms of parasitism and mutualism, we not only put names to conditions, and to practices of living, but open – or reopen, or acknowledge – vistas for better thinking, and better imagining.

In the third chapter of Mutualistic Cities, Mark and Jan return to expound the usefulness of thinking about cities, now and in the future, in terms of parasitism and mutualism. They explain the special significance of these matters for our era of climate change, and trace one path toward a mutualistic future.


1. Mark Williams & Jan Zalasiewicz, “Mutualistic Cities, Chapter One: The Lightbulb at the End of Time, Part I,” Sydney Environment Institute (blog), February 27, 2018.
2. T. Ulmar Graf et al., “A novel resource-service mutualism between bats and pitcher plants,” Biology Letters 7, no. 3 (2011): 436-9.
3. I borrow this from Christensen & Heise’s “Biocities: Urban ecology and the cultural imagination.” In The Routledge Companion to the Environmental Humanities. Ed. Heise, Christensen, & Michelle Neimann. London & New York: Routledge, 2017. 452-61.
4. Christensen & Heise, “Biocities.
5. Beaverstock et al., “A roster of world cities.” Cities 16.6 (1999): 445-58.
6. See Hugo, “Looking forward, looking back: animating magic, modernity and the African city-future in Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon.” Social Dynamics 43.1 (2017): 46-58.
7. Blomkamp is, obviously, himself South African, but critiques of the film’s narrative arc, and of its story-world, are instructive. See, for example, Moses et al., “District 9: A Roundtable.” Safundi 11.1-2 (Jan-Apr 2010): 155-75.
8. See, for instance, Deverell, “Paving the Los Angeles River wasn’t an egalitarian idea. The plan for revitalizing it should be.” Los Angeles Times Jan 4 2018.
9. Price, “Thirteen Ways of Seeing Nature in L.A.” 2 parts. The Believer April 2006.

Killian Quigley is a postdoctoral fellow at the Sydney Environment Institute. He is the co-editor (with Margaret Cohen) of the forthcoming Senses of the Submarine: A Cultural History of the Undersea. He’s recently published articles in Eighteenth-Century Life, The Eighteenth Century, and MAKE, and writes the Great Barrier Reef Stories series for the SEI blog.