Accumulation - Nashin Mahtani - Torrential Urbanism and the Future Subjunctive

Torrential Urbanism and the Future Subjunctive

Nashin Mahtani

Construction of the Trans Kalimtan Highway across Balikpapan Bay. Film still from Tidak ada Kapital (There is No Capital), 2020. © Mahtani and Turpin.

September 2020

Just as the fear of hell drives the marketing schemes of paradise, so too does the desire of paradise fuel the schemes of hell.
—Anna Tsing1

Jakarta’s reputation as the “fastest sinking city in the world” has drawn a frenzy of media documentation of the city through a lens of climate change-driven doom. Reported through gargantuan and often condescending tones (“urbanization gone horribly, horribly wrong!”), these narratives appeal to media sensationalism while disregarding the tactical complexities of heterogenous political economies at play in the industries of climate speculation and aid.2 The sinking of Jakarta cannot be considered separately from long histories of water privatization, (neo)colonial development projects, and the politics of trade and investment. Yet reductive media stories often resort to a moralization of the northern, flood-prone districts of the city and their inhabitants as destitute, irreparable, and disposable, failing to recognize the multitude of residents viscerally immersed and actively living in this torrential urbanism. While international journalists resort to inflammatory representations that perpetuate a stature of disposability and escapism, residents have forged unprecedented alliances, shared in the work of co-producing viable lives among these uncertain futures, and developed forms of collective calculus adequate to their nested and kaleidoscopic predicaments.

The risk of living in north Jakarta is real, even if it is experienced, distributed, and perceived unequally. The totalizing, apocalyptic narratives of imminent demise, however, are mostly profitable for actors betting on these futures from a safe distance. Predominant media representations operationalize the rhetoric of existential urgency to enable new forms of disaster capitalism.3 Following the historic Jakarta floods in 2007 that inundated up to 70% of city, the Indonesian government extended a Memorandum of Understanding on water issues with the Dutch government, asking for additional “urgency assistance” to address flood risk mitigation. Together with Dutch businesses and consultants, the Dutch government designed the National Capital Integrated Coastal Development (NCICD) Master Plan; a US$40 billion infrastructural megaproject involving the construction of an outer sea wall and offshore real-estate development that “offers many possibilities to create added value for the city and funding through land reclamations.”4 Although the plan acknowledges that the most cost effective strategy for flood risk mitigation in Jakarta is to reduce land subsidence—even stating that it would make the forty billion dollar NCICD project “unnecessary altogether”—the plan itself does not address this issue, and instead insists that the colossal infrastructure of oceanic defense is necessary because the sinking of Jakarta cannot be stopped “in time.”5 Urgency, here, is invoked to posit a high-investment offshore masterplan as a stand-alone option, one that guarantees enormous profits for the Dutch water sector. While the NCICD project continues apace, increasing subsidence and flooding has prompted another monumental announcement by the government in 2019, for a simultaneous plan to move the capital city itself. The US$33 billion relocation plan relies on foreign investment and major international loans, and has former British prime minister Tony Blair as its asset manager.

Children play on the seawall that separates the Java Sea (left) from a North Jakarta neighbourhood that is currently 2 meters below sea level.

Climate change speculation prepares the ground for market-based environmental conservation programs, financial instruments designed to manage the risks of increasingly torrential weather patterns, and ostentatious development projects that inevitably claim to save the city. All of these, in turn, create new possibilities for capital accumulation. Designers are often tasked with and engage in future-oriented modes of representation. The ways by which future projections facilitate the movement of material and exchange of credit—so often designed to enable accumulation elsewhere—call into question who is eligible to imagine, measure, or price the future, and by what means such positions of power are acquired and maintained. Operating from the future subjunctive to impact on and govern the present, monumental plans for pre-emption harness risk through an impulse to accumulate profit and power for a select few. Insisting on the urgency and singularity of the present moment is a way to assert asymmetrical claims over the control of various other possibilities while erasing the entanglements of deep, pluriversal histories and their relationship to the present. Under the pretext of a climate emergency, all possible futures are foreclosed but one: a perpetual, techno-solutionist, capitalist modernity.

As designed imaginaries of the future are increasingly operationalized to facilitate new modes of extraction and governance, we must also insist that the future arrives at different times for different socio-economic groups, as well as for different species. Urgency, speculation, and risk all play out differently at the scale of the urban masterplan than they do among the meso-scales of plural, embodied lifeworlds. Amidst various speculations regarding risk and reward, in the Anthropocene city timescales collapse as actors with highly-differentiated destinies—both near and distant—carve out niches of operation in attempts to navigate the uncertainties of climate and species continuity. The range of sensibilities and expectations that these emergent and improvisational practices produce offer important lessons for re-imagining the future otherwise.

The construction site of the Great Garuda project plays host to a variety of unexpected activities, as residents improvise livelihoods around the colossal infrastructure.

The speculative real estate of annihilation

The NCICD, a joint project undertaken by the governments of Indonesia and the Netherlands in 2014, proposes to address Jakarta’s challenges of land subsidence by reinforcing the city’s existing coastal seawall and constructing a new, forty-kilometer-long, twenty-five-meter-high outer sea wall for additional protection against oceanic and tidal forces. At an estimated cost of US$40 billion, the unprecedented expense of this climate infrastructure project will be (partially) recovered through real estate investment on the seventeen reclaimed islands that compliment and extend the arc of the seawall. These islands will be formed so as to create an image of Indonesian’s national symbol: a mythical eagle known as the Garuda Raksasa (Great Garuda).

While not originally part of the flood defense plan, the island reclamation project—which was originally proposed in 1995 to transform the fishing grounds of Jakarta’s northern coast into more profitable high-end ocean-facing residential properties—gained traction with the financial strategy of the new seawall. Although the reclamation project was blocked for years by the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry and Environment—environmental impact assessments stated that reclamation would increase the risk of flooding, destroy marine ecosystems, and negatively impact the livelihoods of fishing communities—the real-estate project has now been fully integrated into the design of the NCICD.6

The Dutch government is also funding some of the NCICD through its “Partners for Water” program; a public-private program that provides financing for initiatives addressing flood mitigation and subsidence in overseas urban deltas, with a caveat that projects also offer prospects of “trade, investments, and contracts.”7 In line with the Dutch Official Development Assistance policy of “from aid to trade,” Dutch consultants involved in the development of the NCICD plan have also been contracted in the construction of reclaimed islands and dredging activities in the Jakarta Bay, alongside other Dutch companies.8

Renderings of the “Great Garuda” project.

By exploiting atmospheric and oceanic indeterminacies, climate change as imminent threat allows developers, consultants, and politicians to re-organize the future as a means to concentrate power and capital flows in the present.9 At the outset of the NCICD project, Dutch consultants claimed that the city had only two years left to act if it wanted to save its northern districts. This engineered scarcity of time helped paralyze space for thinking otherwise and expedited the conditions necessary for hurried credit swaps, the purchase of concrete (especially from elite oligarchs), and foreign direct investment that reinscribes (neo-)colonial power relations. Foreclosing on alternatives, consultants adamantly presented the Great Garuda as the only hope for the sinking city. Jan Jaap Brinkman, a hydrologist with the Dutch consulting firm Deltares, insists: “There are only two options, retreat or advance. We either abandon and evacuate north Jakarta, which is a non-starter, or we advance out into the bay with the seawall.”10

The normalization of urgency in relation to the climate emergency is by now a common trope, especially within the context of contemporary political regimes determined to increase or extend the dimensions of socio-spatial control. In order to fully titillate investors with a speculative and deferential urbanism, however, spectacular renderings are necessary. That is, to expand its frontiers of accumulation, capitalism continually produces compelling visions of a future that offers more than mere survival, or even collective flourishing: it creates and sells images of private, conspicuous, and commodious luxury. Architecture, here, becomes an affluence-branding exercise in the service of energetic squandering: flyovers noodle through a whitewashed waterfront lined with pristine (white) beaches; white towers gleam with an aura of sterility; green promenades are interlaced with solar panels and white wind turbines; etc. All of these figures of liberated privilege deliver en masse a vague promise to “save the city” by constructing a “new,” “world-class” identity. But for whom? Marketed with particular attention to overseas Chinese buyers, television advertising in Mandarin offers a “new vision” of a “new lifestyle”—erasing and thereby replacing the perceived chaos of Jakarta. Speculative urbanism always profits from a distance.

Even among so many promises of glassy-towered futures, urban theater seldom plays out according to the script. NCICD quickly became mired in lawsuits and controversies related to money laundering and forged environmental assessments. As gubernatorial and presidential candidates continue to adopt the controversial project in political campaigns, official narrations of the project recount its iterative interruptions and resumptions, in line with differential promises to either enable or revoke development.11 Our own field work reveals that construction continues, although sometimes openly and sometimes behind securitized perimeters. Despite delays and the uncertainty of the project’s completion, its commencement has already significantly transformed the interface of the city and the sea.

Jakarta’s reinforced sea wall after collapsing into the Java Sea. Film still from Tidak ada Kapital (There is No Capital), 2020. © Mahtani and Turpin.

But politics isn’t the only obstacle facing the seawall. On December 19, 2019, the force of the Java Sea itself obliterated a recently completed 170-meter section of the new defensive barrier. Initially guaranteed to protect the city from oceanic forces for a minimum of eighty years, this massive failure occurred only four years after construction on the new seawall began and with less than one percent of the total project completed. The collapse was blamed on inaccurate assumptions of the maximum force load that had been factored into early engineering calculations. Concerns over the ability to accurately predict the ocean’s force were hastily silenced by ministerial statements assuring residents that construction would resume. A second wall is now under construction, with additional bids, contracts, and material purchase orders. Construction continues under the pretense of preventing a future disaster, again. While fishing communities living adjacent to the construction site express concern for the potential of compounded disasters that the massive infrastructure introduces, no additional protocols have been set in place to adjudicate control measures.12 After all, the production of failure is another autocatalysis for disaster capitalism.13

Site of Indonesia’s new capital city in East Kalimantan. Film still from Tidak ada Kapital (There is No Capital), 2020. © Mahtani and Turpin.

Capital and Chaos

In 2019, Indonesian President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) announced that in order to address monsoon flooding, land subsidence, and extreme congestion in the sprawling megacity, Indonesia would move its capital city from Jakarta to a yet-to-be-determined location in the largely rural province of East Kalimantan on the island of Borneo. In the following months, a barrage of promotional campaign events, press tours, presidential site visits, and selective and highly stylized impact studies led up to the unveiling of the chosen site and its masterplan. Rousing excitement to participate in a vision for the nation’s future, the government announced an open international architecture competition to design the new city, with a particular appeal to “every Indonesian designer to participate.”14 The winning competition entry, by the Indonesian-based architecture practice URBAN+, depicts a forest futurism wherein the new urban center is crossed by undisturbed, organic waterways and surrounded by a lush tropical landscape. Aggressively marketed as a “smart forest city,” the new capital city promises to become “a new symbol of national identity” heralding the qualities of “smartness, beauty, and sustainability.”15

The winning competition entry, “Nagara Rimba Nusa” [Forest Archipelago City] depicts a kind of forest futurism wherein the new urban center is crossed by undisturbed, organic waterways and surrounded by a lush tropical landscape.

Although the “Nagara Rimba Nusa” (“Forest Archipelago City”) campaign uses nationalist rhetoric to garner public enthusiasm at a massive scale, only a much smaller number of actors will ultimately be eligible to participate in its future. The new capital is currently designed to house 900,000 to 1.5 million people, or less than three percent of Jakarta’s current population. Such figures are a poignant reminder that the future is not being designed to host everyone; “saving humanity” still follows deep cartographies of political economic power.16

With a scheduled move-in date of 2024 (the last year of the current president’s second term in office), the government announced its plans to fast-track construction at a soft groundbreaking ceremony in July 2020. During a field visit in early March 2020, however, it was already clear that plans were well behind schedule (this was before COVID-19 had caused further impediments to work on the ground). As with the Great Garuda, an atmosphere of uncertainty envelops the project. And, despite their totalizing visions, no masterplan can escape the variegated temporalities of the biosphere: just as construction on the Great Garuda was interrupted (in fact, destroyed) by monsoon rains, the Forest Archipelago City has stalled due to complications with land acquisition, and more recently, COVID-19. As public demands are made that state funds be redirected toward more immediate and deadly threats, conflicting ministerial statements on the future of the project continue to incite gossip, grift, and speculation.17

Aside from these delays, the monumental new capital plan has elicited a range of reactions amongst residents of Indonesia, ranging from apathy and disbelief to despondency and excitement. And even if its eventual realization remains ambiguous (or unlikely), the imaginative element of the project—its conceptual vision of and for an emancipatory future—functions as the basis for contract negotiations to re-distribute, re-zone, and ecologically transform land. Massive land clearance and infrastructure construction is already underway.

In preparation for the new city, land is cleared at a massive scale. Film still from Tidak ada Kapital (There is No Capital), 2020. © Mahtani and Turpin.

Although currently operating under the pretense of climate adaption, these projects cannot be considered separately from the fractured histories of commodification and political ambition that they enfold. The construction currently underway builds on a long history of development projects that have penetrated the island since the 1970s, each of which has been led by ambitions to facilitate smoother access to Kalimantan’s abundant fuel and forest reserves that feed the accumulation of capital elsewhere. Within the boundaries of the designated site, there are currently 162 active concessions (including mining, forestry, oil palm plantation, and coal concessions), 94 abandoned coal mining pits, and 72 indigenous villages, all entangled in a long history of struggle and violence to control the commodification of the Kalimantan rainforest. From global supply chains demanding the cheap accruement of palm oil, timber, and coal, to the centripetal force of capitalist firms accumulating profits in the metropole (by displacing risk elsewhere), a history of colonial and global arrangements of extraction and wealth creation are deeply imbricated within the terrain.

Evidence of this entanglement, one of President Jokowi’s first decrees during his first term in office in 2014 was the immediate completion of the Trans Kalimantan Highway project. An extensive highway circuit that cuts through the forested island to link its centers of production and sites of extraction, the Trans Kalimantan was one of many infrastructural projects initiated in the 1970s under the New Order Regime, a political party whose legitimacy was tied to its promise of rapid economic growth. The project opened up the forest and paved the way for poachers, miners, loggers, and plantations, all while laying the foundation for a prolonged struggle against environmental and social injustice.

Since it began, the Trans Kalimantan has been caught in start-and-stop cycles, with bursts of construction followed by sudden, indeterminate stalls due to funding challenges and poor execution. The prioritization of the capital relocation project, however, enabled legislative revisions, bill enactment, capital injection, and the immediate re-allocation of national budget to expedite the promise of the highway’s completion under the president’s final term in office. One of the final segments of the Trans Kalimantan circuit is the Balikpapan-Samarinda Toll Road, where the new capital city is strategically located.

Construction of the Samarinda Toll Road. Film still from Tidak ada Kapital (There is No Capital), 2020. © Mahtani and Turpin.


Frontiers of Contingency

If the Trans Kalimantan operates explicitly to increase the “speed and efficiency of goods, people and logistics” and “encourage the development of production areas for palm oil, coal, oil and gas and agricultural commodities,” other initiatives simultaneously parcel out the forest through a different set of instruments focused on sustainability, security, and conservation.18 In May 2020, in response to an anticipated food shortage due to the disruption of supply chains triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Indonesian government announced plans for a food estate project that would convert 2.2 million acres of peatland swamps in Kalimantan into rice paddies.19 This expanded food plan should be seen alongside reports about the rapacious demand for additional land acquisition permits around the new capital. While the government promised (though has yet to enforce) a freeze of land prices in the area to avoid uncontrolled real estate speculation, there is no legislation to prevent land speculation in areas immediately adjacent to the new capital, which can now be acquired, we are told, to prevent an imminent famine.20 And having been traded and swapped among various international and national initiatives under frameworks of restoration, conservation, and development since the 1970s, the area zoned for the food estate project also enfolds a long history of violent land control. These include the state-led Mega Rice Project, the Central Kalimantan Peatland Project (a joint project between the Dutch government, Shell, Borneo Orangutan Survival, Wetlands International, CARE, and WWF), and REDD+ (an agreement between the governments of the Netherlands and Indonesia). While none of these projects have been carried to completion, their performative commencement has all been significant. Just as with the Great Garuda and the capital relocation, proposals for a restorative future play a key role in instigating the legislative revisions necessary to redistribute land rights and generate new patterns of ownerships, control, and displacement, regardless of whether plans are carried to completion or not.

In Borneo, we met with Jubaen, the chief of Pemaluan, a village inside the planning zone for the new capital, and a member of the Indigenous Paser Balik tribe. He explained that they only found out they were within the site of the new capital city from the news, and had not been consulted. Without any official ownership records to assert rights to the land, the Indigenous tribe is cognizant of the oncoming patterns of displacement that they have been familiar with since the 1970s when plantation companies began to encroach on their land.

For Indigenous communities, narratives of imminent risk perpetuate centuries of colonial violence and genocide.21 The announcement of the new capital—a project depending almost entirely on the state’s acquisition of privately-owned land—led to a change to Indonesia’s property laws that made it more difficult, and sometimes illegal, to contest land conflicts.22 The legislative revision also outlined investment exemptions for state-led projects, fast-tracking new resource extraction schemes. The government even suggested another legislative maneuver relying on a state of exception: a compensation scheme for land holders within the extended site of the new capital.23

A “normalized” section of the Ciliwung River in Jakarta. In the process of replacing the river’s bank with concretized edges, thousands of river-side communities have been displaced, with houses literally sawn, and left, in half.

Residential Relays

When seemingly random and unorganized acts of self-defense erupt against the violence of the state and capital, the only important question is how to maintain their connection to the social field they are meant to defend.
—Fred Moten24

It will be increasingly difficult to see what urban residents have in common except for the increasing precarity of their existence. This is a precarity that both holds doom and enormous potential.
—AbdouMaliq Simone25

It is one thing to plan for climate change from a distance while accumulating capital elsewhere. It is quite another to live among the vicissitudes of a future that has always already arrived too soon. Even in the shadow of abandonment, the majority of Jakarta’s residents continue to rearrange and reposition themselves, creating new alternatives to reinvent viable livelihoods.

I first met Abdul Kodir, an environmental activist and co-founder of the Ciliwung Institute, for in 2017. As we sat along the upstream banks of the Ciliwung River—one of the thirteen rivers that flow through Jakarta—he described the transformations of the Ciliwung watershed that he had witnessed over the course of his life on and alongside the river. The significance of urban boundaries grew increasingly apparent during our conversation, especially as he described how policies that attended to the river were usually only focused on the segments of the river that crossed through the city. Meanwhile, the river flows through three cities, with Jakarta at its most downstream jurisdiction, before it empties into the Java Sea. The continued insistence that the river should be modulated by the spatiotemporalities of politics rather than geophysics—that seasonal flooding must not disrupt the economic activities within the administrative boundaries of the capital during the monsoon season—has perpetuated a series of flood prevention projects confined by the boundaries of the capital district.

The overflow of water (flooding) has always characterized the behavior of the Ciliwung river.26 When these inherent qualities of the river—helping to channel water from higher points in the watershed toward to the lower points where it can rejoin the sea—work against the regimented structures of control that characterize capitalist eFigure 10.JPGconomies, however, they can be re-framed by planners and experts as problems that must be solved. Funded by the World Bank and the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), the 2013 Ciliwung River “normalization” scheme, which aims to increase the drainage capacity of the river by widening it to twice its natural width and replacing its banks with contiguous concretized edges, does exactly this. The profit-driven desire to normalize unruly natural systems leads to an ideational monoculture that forecloses on diverse, rhythmic ways of living with the river by minimizing the possibility space of socio-ecological relations to modes of containment, control, and separation.

On the ground, these master’s plans encounter other realities where they are often further entangled in unforeseen constellations of resistance. In terms of (construction) feasibility, the process of concretizing the riverbank has not followed the topology of the water body, but proceeds based on ease of access to the river, determined by its heterogeneous edge conditions. The completion of the project remains uncertain, as construction was halted in October 2019 (shortly after the announcement of the new capital city) due to budget cuts by the Jakarta administration. The river’s edge is now a discontinuous pastiche of partially drilled concrete piles and one-sided channelized segments scattered sporadically amongst zones of fully channelized embankments. The project’s progress so far, however, has had adverse effect. Instead of realizing the project’s aim of managing the flow of water, the concrete banks have led to an acceleration of water through the discontinuous, channelized segments of the river, thereby increasing erratic flood patterns. Any prior understanding of the river’s behavior based on its topology—its tendency to flow according to particular patterns based on observable upstream and downstream conditions—has been completely disrupted.

As a result, the project has compromised the ability of those residents most directly affected by flooding to anticipate its arrival based on their traditional, local knowledge. The approach to risk by residents living along the river is decidedly different from that touted by consultants and politicians. Without the option of infrastructural or climatological distancing, the volatilities of risk are not perceived as a singular monumental event in the future to be pre-emptively designed against. Rather, by attempting to make everyday life possible within the current systems of inequality, residents adopt micro-speculative practices to reposition, rearrange, and adapt to heterogeneous and accumulating forms of risk. Concrete piles and continuous dredging become just another layer among the socio-material-ecological assemblages of the river. Despite frustrations and anger, there is a refusal to live in fear and a rejection of escape: “We do what we can with what we have.”27

To adjust to increasingly erratic flows of water, for instance, riverside communities quickly developed a collective, empirically-indexed flood warning system, by repeatedly sharing and updating river conditions through an informal SMS network. Not limited by the boundaries of the capital, the information sharing network extended along the entire length of the river, connecting residents in Jakarta to the upstream cities of Bogor and Depok. While flooding cannot be predicted, and certainly cannot be eliminated, this empirical information sharing network has enabled residents to respond to surreptitious flooding with far more agility and creativity than without.

In reality, there are more than two bad responses to climate change—namely, concretize the coast and the river’s edge, or relocate the city to another island. For what if residents want to live with, or alongside, the tropical monsoon? As monolithic infrastructures burst under the increasing pressure of intensifying monsoon precipitation, there is much to learn from the multiplicities of adaptable, situated knowledges that suggest various ways of co-inhabiting with environments in flux. The acceptance of uncertainty, rather than a desire for control, leads to far more flexible and adaptive practices of climate adaptation.

Resident SMS networks relay observations, remain attentive to their material entanglements, and suggest different ways to think about stasis and movement in time and space. Drawing from the patterns of thought and action that derive from living with the rhythmic turbulences of water, our team in Indonesia began to experiment with the possibilities of extending these improvisational forms of urban coordination to the scale of the city, the region, and eventually all of Indonesia. Since 2013, we have been working on the design and implementation of an open-source platform that transforms instant messaging and social media networks into life-saving emergency communication and coordination networks.28 Harnessing the addiction of social media, and the abundant ways by which residents across the city humorously express their repeated encounters with water during the monsoon season, we have redesigned social media networks through a parasitic open source software that transforms tweets, posts, and messages into structured crowdsourced disaster reports.

As a real-time information sharing system, the platform is now used by millions of residents, first responders, and government agencies to make time-critical decisions in the face of unpredictable weather events. Rather than reinforcing illusory fantasies of control, we adopt a set of representational choices that frame the presence of water otherwise. The seasonal flood selfie has become characteristic among Jakartans. Our #SelfiesSaveLives campaign encourages residents to share these images, which act as bodily metrics of the flood water, and submit flood reports in order to alert each other and response agencies on the rapidly fluctuating conditions of the flood. Through a real-time distributed sensing network, crowd-sourced reports indicating the severity of the flood have significantly improved response times and helped mitigate risk. By supporting practices of mutual aid, with a sense of conviviality, rather than insisting on apocalyptic doom, risk can also be the pretense to amplify care and create space for the plularity of lifeworlds that are brought into closer contact as flood waters inundate the city. Living within the vicissitudes of the Anthropocene necessitates moving away from the addictive tendencies of apocalypse escapism and instead moving towards rehearsing practices of endurance without future certainty.

The northern coast of Jakarta is composed of heteregoneous lifeworlds situated in close proximity to each other; luxury homes and condos are directly adjacent to (but visibly segregated from) urban poor neighbourhoods, fishing communities, large industrial factories, power plants, and shipping ports.

Enduring Ruins

Endurance depends on the continuous efforts of people to discover and reach each other. It is the willingness to suspend the familiar and even the counted-on in order to engage something unexpected. This engagement may sometimes be simply the reiteration of a commitment to what already is, a decision that is better to stay put with what is familiar.

At other times, it involves an effort to find a way to make what is discovered useful, to incorporate it into one’s life or see it as another vehicle to be occupied; it entails the transfer of time and energy from one way of being in the world into another.
—AbdouMaliq Simone29

This means telling histories of the cultural and biological synergies through which diversity continues to emerge, even in ruins.
Anna Tsing30

Along the coast of Jakarta, where sand mined from Indonesia’s “outer” islands is being reclaimed to construct the seventeen new islands that form the Great Garuda, residents living in dense villages build their own infrastructures of endurance as they face immediate and frequent risks of inundation. Pointing to high water marks on their homes—each one carrying the memory of a specific flood event and the familial interactions amplified and entangled with the flow of water—residents tell their stories and explain how they incrementally raise their homes brick by brick. A conviviality is relayed during recollections about communal practices, when residents coordinate and work together to reuse resources and materials left undamaged by flooding. These narratives are often fragmentary, but they nevertheless provide critical insights into the ways atmospheric turbulence and climate speculation are forcing residents into new and often unpredictable constellations for collective action.

The divergent processes of capital accumulation and communal adaptability occurring along the coast do not occur in separate worlds. Instead, they feed on and transform one another. Residents living immediately adjacent to the construction site of the Great Garuda—having to creatively reposition themselves amongst neoliberal planning projects within the means they have available—also enter into less traceable negotiations with construction workers and unofficial regulators to garner the materials necessary to endure in their everyday lives. At every point along the chain through a multiplicity of incremental maneuvers that slip through bureaucratic cracks, actors carve out niches of operation to navigate the uncertainties of climate futures. While variable exposures to risk rooted in historically-grounded power asymmetries constrain the range of opportunities available for different groups, the heterogenous collisions of semiotic-material entanglements reveals a possibility space for unexpected emergent forms of urban sociality. People may work together without having common aspirations, even when collaboration may not benefit all parties.

Other forces wax and wane in turn. On World Ocean Day, 2020, the force of the sea burst a coastal barrier wall at a point that inundated an elite oceanview neighborhood. As private yachts and mansions were claimed by the sea, residents temporarily relocated to hotels in the city center. Living adjacent to the gated complex, less affluent communities who experience flooding far more regularly had already moved their belongings to upper floors of their raised homes in anticipation of the high tide. The unequal distribution of risk also means that some people are more accustomed to paying attention to environmental indicators that can suddenly destroy their livelihoods. Despite the structural violence imbricated in this asymmetry, residents forge new ways to extract what is possible from this differential. Before official agencies could evacuate the mansions, village residents had repurposed carts, built out platforms, and salvaged inflatable boats to provide their own improvised evacuation service for their wealthy neighbors. The plurality of urban lifeworlds are not always agreeable, nor are they equal, but they offer the opportunity to care for one another and fortify modes of endurance in an uncertain world.

While it is necessary to creatively engage in the immediate torrentialities of the climate crisis as they play out in our everyday lived realities, it is also critical to simultaneously open up other possibility spaces that open out onto more generous, reconstructed futures. How we conceive possible futures matters; these concepts inflect the ways we position ourselves and engage with the full spectrum of the biosphere and its many diverse entities. To think the future otherwise is not to start from a neutral present, but to emerge from and create within the multiplicity of already occurring practices. The question becomes how to creatively reorganize relationships and move towards the worlds we want, while salvaging what we can from the worlds we are in?

While risk models have been aggressively adopted to accelerate neoliberal capitalism, the ways they engage with future worlds also offer the chance for political inversions. In their capacity to render time-complexes that can produce recursive truths—that is, situations produced through a speculative narrative in a way that the future is always inflecting the trajectory of the present—the risk model retains a potency to overcome the limitation of the colonial, linear ordering of time.31 An inversion of the model could rotate its posture from a prescriptive designation to an opening to search for radically different but latent worlds. How can we engage with a time-complex not driven by profits or electoral cycles? How can we appreciate and attend to ongoingness, history, and undercommon trajectories within environmental and political crises? By accounting for (neo-)colonial and racialized capitalism, how can we simultaneously reach out to deeper radical traditions and attend to more-than-human worlds? Thinking through and with a thick, collective time—one that includes monsoon rhythms, colonial (not yet) pasts, and heterogenous imaginations of and for many futures—how can the risk model be inverted as an engine of ethical transformation by design?32

The future becomes foreclosed only if we continue to succumb to the repression of alternatives by totalizing and cancelling narratives. Especially if we care to move towards co-habitable species futures (and certainly if we are concerned with the continuation of our own species), we cannot afford a failure (or erasure) of imagination. Apocalyptic narratives are an escape from contemplating how life goes on even through torrentialities, all while erasing the concern of other lives by imagining they are already gone. A sober reckoning with the environmental, social, and political challenges of our world calls for a shift away from the temptation of escapism and a move towards finding ways to make space for pluriversal futures keyed to different traditions and their respective and changing ecologies. Only if we can imagine different futures—ones that emerge from embracing, instead of cancelling, pluralistic histories and temporalities capable of inhabiting turbulence—can we begin to work towards more viable lifeworlds.


Anna Tsing, “Natural Resources and Capitalist Frontiers,” Economic and Political Weekly 38, no. 48 (2003): 5101.


“Series 1: Southeast Asia, Jakarta the MegaCity,” Equator from the Air, BBC2, June 9, 2019, .


Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (Toronto: Knopf Canada, 2007).


Indonesian Ministry of Economic Affairs, Government of the Netherlands, Master Plan. National Capital Integrated Coastal Development, December 1, 2014, 39.


Ibid., 37.


Even the logo developed for the NCICD depicts the significance of real estate in the project, focusing on a new skyline of high-rise buildings without any reference to flood adaptation.


Rijksoverheid, Internationale Waterambitie, January 2016, 11, .


See, for example, “Boskalis and Van Oord to construct artificial island off the coast of Jakarta, Indonesia”, Dutch Water Sector, January 29, 2015, .


On threat as virtual futurity affecting the present, see Brian Massumi, “Fear (the Spectrum Said)”, positions 13.1 (2005): 31–48.


Philip Sherwell, “$40bn to save Jakarta: The story of the Great Garuda,” The Guardian, November 22, 2016, .


See for example: A. Muh. Ibnu Aqil, “Jokowi’s approval of Jakarta islet development stokes criticism”, The Jakarta Post, May 18, 2020, ; “Anies Beber Alasan Tak Cabut Pergub Ahok Dasar IMB Reklamasi”, CNN Indonesia, June 19, 2019, ; “Ahok says he was ‘scapegoated’ after governor Anies issued building permits on controversioal reclaimed Jakarta Bay islets”, Coconuts Jakarta, June 20, 2019, .


Interview with coastal residents, January 10, 2020; see also Vela Andapita and Sausan Atika, “‘It was scary’: Wall collapse raises concerns about coastal safety in Jakarta,” The Jakarta Post, December 7, 2019, .


Much of the research about the sea wall and the new Indonesian capital was conducted with Etienne Turpin for our forthcoming film Tidak Ada Kapital (There is No Capital). On processes of accumulation and abandonment, see: Nashin Mahtani and Etienne Turpin, “There is No Capital,” Kerb 28 (Fall 2020).


N. Adri, “Wanted: Designs for Indonesia’s new smart, green capital city”, The Jakarta Post, October 3, 2019, .


Secretariat of the National Capital Infrastructure Development Planning Task Force, “A contest for the design of the nation’s capital region,” Ministry of Public Works and Public Housing of Republic of Indonesia, 2019, .


On the eurocentric geopolitics of industrialized war and capitalism that produced this ecocide, see Jarius Grove, Savage Ecology: War and Geopolitics at the End of the World (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2019).


In late June 2020, the ministry of public works and housing announced that construction would continue on schedule; separately, the national planning agency suggested that activities would be delayed; other senior administrators overseeing the project have refused to comment on its schedule.


Marchio Irfan Gorbiano, “Jokowi welcomes Kalimantan’s first toll road, seeks link to new capital,” The Jakarta Post, December 18, 2019, .


On the importance of peatland ecologies for slowing climate change, see Peta Bencana, “Peat Fires & Palm Oil: An Introduction by,” YouTube, November 18, 2017, .


Fabiola Fabrianti, “Antisipasi Spekulasi Tanah di Kaltim, ATR/BPN akan Lakukan Land Freezing”,, August 28, 2019, .


Under the law, any land that cannot be proven to be owned by anyone is automatically property of the state. For decades, Indigenous communities in Indonesia (especially in rural areas) have been displaced because they do not have (and usually cannot acquire) the documentation to prove their inheritance of land that has been cultivated and passed on over many generations.


“RUU Pertanahan Dinilai Memuat Belasan Pasal Bermasalah,” CNN Indonesia, September 7, 2019, .


Although details are still to be determined, the scheme is modelled on the Land Swap Agreement enacted in 2016, when in the aftermath of the environmental destruction caused by the unprecedented 2015 forest fires, the government designated five million acres of land as a priority peatland restoration zone. Companies already operating in the newly-designated protection areas were offered “replacement” lands, most of which are located in untouched forests of Papua New Guinea.


Fred Moten, Stolen Life: consent not to be a single being (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2018), 186.


AbdouMaliq Simone, “Urbanity and generic blackness,” Theory, Culture & Society 33, nos. 7–8 (2016): 194.


Jakarta was built on a swampland, so seasonal flooding has always been part of daily life. Early twentieth century literary and popular representations depict the flood not as a threat, but as a festive event. For more on the shifting framing of flooding, see “Urban temporalities—Jakarta after the new order: Abidin Kusno in conversation with Meredith Miller and Etienne Turpin,” Scapegoat: Architecture, Landscape, Political Economy 5 (2013): 180–205. For more on the history of flooding in Jakarta, see Frank Sedlar, “Inundated infrastructure: Jakarta’s failing hydraulic infrastructure, Michigan Journal of Sustainability 4 (2016).


Interview with riverside resident, Sude, April 25, 2018.

28 is a community-led disaster-mapping platform co-founded by Dr. Etienne Turpin and Dr. Tomas Holderness; I am currently the director of Yayasan Peta Bencana (Disaster Map Foundation), which acts as the custodian of the platform and its advocate and manager with partner organizations and communities. For a detailed description of the project, see Nashin Mahtani, “Impressions of Disaster,” e-flux architecture, 2017, .


AbdouMaliq Simone, Jakarta: Drawing the City Near (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), 214.


Anna Tsing, “Contaminated Diversity,” in “Slow Disturbance: Potential Collaborators for a Liveable Earth,” RCC Perspectives 9 (2012): 98.


On the speculative time complex, see Suhail Malik and Armen Avanessian, The Time Complex: Post-Contemporary (Miami: NAME, 2016).


For a speculative inquiry into these questions, see MERA by Strelka—The New Normal, . MERA posits a model of more-than-human environmental co-governance through an inversion of the risk model.

Accumulation is a project by e-flux Architecture and Daniel A. Barber produced in cooperation with the University of Technology Sydney (2023); the PhD Program in Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania Weitzman School of Design (2020); the Princeton School of Architecture (2018); and the Princeton Environmental Institute at Princeton University, the Speculative Life Lab at the Milieux Institute, Concordia University Montréal (2017).

Urbanism, Capitalism
Southeast Asia, Climate change, Accidents & Disasters, Futures, Water & The Sea, Infrastructure
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Special thanks to Etienne Turpin for his careful edits on this text, and the continued guidance, discussions, and collaborations that this essay, and the work that it draws from, wouldn’t be possible without. Thanks also to the MERA team for thoughtful collaborations on what it means to think the future differently, and to all colleagues and residents involved in the PetaBencana platform for thinking and working through torrential urbanisms together.

Nashin Mahtani is an architectural theorist and designer, investigating the interplay of software aesthetics, ecological governance, and social behaviours to advocate for environmental justice. She is currently the director of (Disaster Map Indonesia), where she leads a multidisciplinary design research team in developing humanitarian infrastructures for climate adaptation.


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