The mine/city nexus illustrates the long-lasting material interdependence that exists between processes of urbanization and the extraction of resources. Each energy transition of the past—think of coal and oil—has both been premised upon and generated itself planetary-scale geographic transformations. Why should we then think differently about the unfolding transition to renewable energy sources?
The first chapter of my dissertation takes commodity chains as a methodological orientation to describe how the forms of urban agglomeration and those of extension are mutually transformed. Although studies of urban metabolism have vastly flourished over the last two decades, commodities remain a largely underrated urban heuristic therein. And yet, an economic history of the city elucidates how its existence is tightly bound to and ultimately premised upon the planetary-scale circulation of things through the market. In order to carve such methodological space, this chapter reviews the commodity chain genealogy in economic geography, charting how its engagement with urban issues has remained limited. To explore these issues in practice, it turns to examine the interdependence of zero-emission urbanism with other territories of production and extraction by reconstructing a ‘lithium road’. Lithium is a fundamental ingredient in the production of high-performance batteries, themselves being a fundamental component in the current pathway to urban decarbonization worldwide. In calling for a systematic exploration of the ‘backroads of decarbonization’, the chapter concludes that, by illuminating the extractive processes emerging together with the decarbonization of cities, an urban metabolism of commodities is a precious tool in unpacking the material geographies of urban change.
Alberto Valz Gris is a PhD candidate in Urban and Regional Development at the Politecnico di Torino, Italy, and part of the Future Urban Legacy Lab.