An Interview with Dr. Jonathan Barton

In November 2021, Saint Louis University – Madrid and the Observatory on Contemporary Crises (OCC) welcomed Professor Jonathan Barton from the Institute of Geography at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile for a #CrisisTalks lecture. Barton discussed what he calls shifting perspectives in times of crisis from atomization to the Poliscene. His talk was titled “Crises of the Poliscene: Glocalisation, Climate Emergency and the Pandemic.”

Following the talk, the OCC  conducted an interview with Professor Barton. The following is a summary of the main points and takeaways from the lecture and interview.

Jonathan Barton has been with the Catholic University in Santiago del Chile since 2004. He taught previously at the University of East Anglia and at the London School of Economics. He holds a PhD in Economic History, and is a geographer by training. His current work includes leading research on urban and regional planning issues, climate change, and its related issues of governance.

What is the Poliscene  and why Is it relevant?

 When working to find solutions to seemingly infinite issues like climate change, Barton emphasizes creating and utilizing language that work as building blocks. The semantics can establish both the grandiosity and the seemingly contradictory proximity of a problem, which can allow a space for the right conversations to take place, and leads then to direct action. He walks through the genealogy that creates the Poliscene, a hybrid word that borrows from natural science’s Anthropocene and the popular long form approach of research, most popularly utilized by Yuval Noah Hurari in his book about human life, Sapiens.

The emergence and discussion of the Anthropocene emerged amongst natural scientists ten to fifteen years ago. The term creates discussion about the role of humans on the planet and the changes that are taking place: ecosystems, climate change, and changes in mineral and nutrient systems. According to Professor Barton, “it is a term from the natural sciences defining the system (…); it looks at the system dynamics”, though without asking the question: what are we going to do? Indeed, “Anthropocene is useful as a construction but there are some more interesting things that have happened recently.” For example, Barton cites the work of Jason Moore and Capitalocene, the idea that Capitalism is the root problem that is generating challenges.

I like Moore’s work, however, it is more complex than that”, Professor Barton continues, using the example of the role of China in the international economy to demonstrate that it is too simplistic to talk about Capitalism on its own. According to him, although we as humans are mainly connected in terms of capital, we are disconnected from nature, water, energy, and food systems, largely as a result of urbanization and collective consumption. “That is how I get to the Poliscene”, Barton says. “What is different about this particular period? Why are things accentuated so much from the 1950s onwards in climate change and others? It has to be the urbanization process and disconnection in terms of how we understand nature.” As Such, Barton’s work builds off the other “cenes” to develop the concept that to view the issues of climate change or even a pandemic, one has to recognize there may lay a connection in the shift to city life and urbanization. The human experience morphed from being in touch with its water, energy or food to a collective system that lies out of view of the regular city dweller. Barton defines the urbanization as an infection that reminds one of the earliest definitions of crisis, a word defined by the ancient Greek father of medicine, Galen, who defined the trajectory of an illness as crisis. What is there to be done about this separation from what defined human experience for much of its existence? What can one use to treat the illness? Barton says glocalisation.

Then how can glocalisation help in creating systemic resilience to syndemic events?

From his position as a political geographer with a PhD in economic history, Professor Barton is interested in trade and International Relations. Before, International Relations was geopolitics, which was later discredited because it was used to support National socialism in Germany. However, geopolitics  laid the foundation of geography with an emphasis on nation states, territoriality, and commerce. ”There is a strong root from geography to trade and commerce,” Professor Barton explains. What I think is the advantage of geography in relation with International Relations is the international, the emphasis on nation states and that scale of analysis.” Barton emphasizes that although the state has changed and adapted, it remains key and omnipresent.

Since the 1970s and 1980s, we have seen new and different actors and institutions emerge, such as the Bretton Woods system and its institutions such as the WTO. “The link with the Poliscene is our sub-national actors. Whether it is regional separatism, city states like Singapore, Hong Kong, or whether it is big cities,” says Professor Barton, pointing to New York City as separate from the state of New York and the federal system. These are big financial and logistical centers, and they do challenge the dominance of the nation state, but they also complement them in a certain way since they reinforce each other. For example, it is difficult to talk about China without mentioning Shanghai, and vice versa. “So this brings in a new actor and new agencies to the discussion about the geography of crises”, according to Barton.

Spaces of networks seek to link, not necessarily regulate … and that can be positive. For example, international social movements linking together through the internet to support struggles in Myanmar or China.” Professor Barton also mentions the deregulatory nature of spaces of networks such as Facebook, not wanting to take control over sources of hate. Spaces of networks are more liberalized, while at the same time, they seek to create more spaces of regulation. They are not separate but in tension, and for this reason, Professor Barton favors  Erik Swyngedouw’s work and the idea of glocalisation regarding its power relations and power asymmetries. There are power relations trying to permanently recreate, redesign, reformulate, what is necessary on a range of issues… environmental regulation, social regulation, fiscal issues, state sovereignty.” This is the interesting link for crises.What do we expect from networks? What do we expect from regulation?” Prof Another example is global emissions, which are not global but have a determined origin and highly localized impacts.

The Poliscene localizes issues. It is where crises take place: in cities. “The larger discussion of the nation state still exists, but when we are looking at where the crisis takes place, it doesn’t happen everywhere.” When we think about where crises come from, and where they are committed, it is increasingly in urban locations. Risk of climate change is concentrated in cities because of population density; terrorism attacks occur in cities; and even rural and natural areas are connected with urban locations. But how much capacity do governments have for regulation? Or, as Professor Barton puts it,what power do they have? What is their relation with the nation state? How do we complement the nation state discourse with more interscalar discussions about syndemics?”. By extension, Barton is pointing to another problem within cities: syndemics.

In this #CrisisTalks lecture, Professor Barton also made his point clearer by giving the example of Latin America and the global South during the pandemic. There, the crisis changed from Covid to hunger as people were not able to stay home. Priorities and evaluation of risks were – and remain – different according to various factors such as identity, culture, and economics. While the nation state tends to tackle one risk at a time with ministries for specific problems, people’s livelihoods are more complex and mixed than that. “

So, considering sub-national actors, how can we rethink our approach to crisis management?

 It is about how we understand crises”, says Professor Barton. It starts with the naming of the crisis. Barton gives the example of the change of naming crises: it started with Global Warming, then it became Climate Change, and now we have what we call the Climate Emergency. “What or when is a crisis? How long can a crisis last before we stop calling it a crisis? What criteria do we use to name a crisis? What is critical and for whom? Semantics are really important.” The issue here is not how we manage crises, but how we avoid crises. Professor Barton’s answer is resilience.

The idea is we are resilient, therefore crises will not be exacerbated as intense or critical as they might be. This can be for terrorism, health, climate change, economy,” he says, adding that the idea is how we anticipate crises. A vehement critic of neoliberalism, he criticizes the shift from planning to very short-term management. He points out that this applies to the public sector, whereas the private sector hasn’t left planning. “I dont see Coca Cola somehow not having long term plans about their expansion in terms of products, or in terms of location or markets.” Professor Barton tells us that, to be resilient, it is crucial to identify potential crises and prepare for them in a serious way. That involves government thinking strategically at all levels.

Crises reveal systemic asymmetries in power, resources, access . Whatever the crisis, it may trigger some of the same things. As Barton points out, “we dont solve the crisis by a vaccine, bailout, climate change agreement. We have to go back to the basic social and economic conditions of people so that they are resilient to crises known and unknown.”

This interview has been conducted by  Elise Petrocci and Catherine McQueeny, MA students and research assistants at the Observatory on Contemporary Crises (OCC).

To quote this article, please use the following reference:  J. Barton (2021), “Glocalisation, Climate Emergency, and the Pandemic”.

The OCC publishes a wide range of opinions that are meant to help our readers think of International Relations. This publication reflects the views only of the author, and neither the OCC nor Saint Louis University can be held responsible for any use which may be made of the opinion of the author and/or the information contained therein.