The Immuno-political Fantasy of Ecological Gentrification
: A Psychoanalytic Exploration of the Visual Culture and Politics of 'Sustainable' Urban Regeneration in London, Hamburg and Amsterdam

  • Earl T Harper

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy (PhD)


This thesis explores the theoretical basis for expanding the definition of ecological gentrification to include apocalyptic narratives of climate change. It argues that apocalyptic narratives are increasingly used as a justificatory regime for continuing and expanding patterns of urban exclusion. The argument employs a number of key theoretical perspectives including: Lefebvrean Urban Theory, Marxist Value Theory, Debordian Spectacle, Political Ecology and Lacanian Psychoanalysis. The thesis takes the production of space, as presented by Lefebvre, as a starting point to understand the key tenets of Urban Political Ecology. A discussion of the production of nature gives way to an argument which holds the city as a particular moment in the urbanisation of nature, making the management of nature for various social purposes the key function of urban planning. The city is conceptualised, therein, as a commodification of nature, which leads in late modernity, to the circulation of apocalyptic spectacles and phantasmagoria, which further entrench capitalist enclosures of the commons.

The argument explores how various forms of climate change narratives, from the scientific to the fictive, often fall into the tropes of apocalypticism, which reproduce and reflect contemporary anxieties about the future. As explored through Rancière, Swyngedouw, and Žižek, this gives rise to different forms of subversion and foreclosure of the political moment. Such political critiques question which forms of ‘the political’ urban apocalyptic narratives make possible or impossible, with the most likely outcomes being either a political moment proper, post-politics, or ultra-politics.

Extant literatures indicate that sustainable urban regeneration may, in fact, lead to increased social inequality due to the attractiveness of these projects to more affluent residents seeking low-carbon lifestyles. I argue that, given the anxiety over climate change and the commodification of nature by urbanisation, low-carbon, elite focused urban planning, sometimes termed ecological gentrification, utilises apocalyptic anxieties to achieve its aims in a post-political moment. This argument emerges from the political ecological critique that nature is often conflated with truth, making any call for action in the name of natural imperatives, such as climate change mitigation, an incontestable call in contemporary society. One consequence is that various forms of gentrification become hard to resist as a false dichotomy is established: either gentrify with sustainable housing, or achieve social equality but fail to tackle climate change.

Empirical analysis is conducted via critical visual semiotics in field-sites including London, Amsterdam, and Hamburg. Their contemporary urbanscapes are deconstructed for ideological meaning to reveal worrying significations surrounding heroism, immunity from crisis, and exclusivist communities created in opposition to climate change. I argue that in order to maintain coherency amongst community members, the commodity being sold, via spectacles of immuno-political signification, is protection from the apocalypse. For such immuno-politics to function, the apocalypse has to continue to occur, but not affect the consumers of the commodity. Immuno-political fantasies thus enable the loss of the habitable planet to be reconciled through capitalist consumption of ‘solutions’.

In conclusion, the thesis argues for a re-imagining of ecological gentrification as a more insidious process, one which, if allowed to continue uncritically, simply subverts the call for real solutions into cultural capitalism and further enclosure of the commons, weakening our ability to tackle, effectively, climate change.
Date of Award23 Jun 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Bristol
SupervisorFranklin Ginn (Supervisor) & Mark Jackson (Supervisor)


  • Gentrification
  • Psychoanalysis
  • Visual Methodologies
  • Semiology
  • Marx
  • Lacan
  • Ranciere
  • Zizek
  • Ecological Gentrification
  • Fantasy
  • Politics
  • Post-politics
  • Urban Theory
  • Spectacle
  • Debord
  • Climate Change
  • Apocalypse
  • Community
  • Immunity
  • Fear
  • Anxiety
  • Pre-trauma

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