The floods next time

October 25, 2017

Ashley Dawson is a writer and activist, a visiting professor at the Princeton Environmental Institute and the author of a number of books and articles about the intersection of capitalism and climate change, including a recent New York Daily News piece about the ways that fossil fuel executives plan to steer the rebuilding plans for Puerto Rico away from renewable energy development. He spoke with Danny Katch about his latest book, Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change, published by Verso Books.

THE PREMISE of your book is that climate change is happening during a time of increasing urbanization and inequality around the world. Can you explain how cities are going to be uniquely affected by catastrophic floods and droughts?

THE MAJORITY of humanity has lived in cities around the world since about 2007. The processes of neoliberal globalization is driving people into cities, particularly in the global South. People are settling in what Mike Davis calls "slum ecologies," in highly threatened portions of land where existing elites don't want to live--low-lying land or land that can be easily flooded, etc.

Meanwhile, urbanization is hooking people into all the aspects of modernity, including increased consumption of electricity and consumer goods, which, of course, is producing climate change.

And in the global North, even though we have, in general, more access to capital which can pad people from disasters of various different kinds, ironically, the creation of highly articulated infrastructures means that the possibility for catastrophic failure is higher. You get all these elaborate waterfront developments with privatized electrical systems, globe-spanning communications technologies, and all the other trappings of life in our networked world.

Flooding in Lower Manhattan during Hurricane Sandy
Flooding in Lower Manhattan during Hurricane Sandy

And so the possibility is created for something as simple as a tree falling somewhere, all the way to a catastrophic hurricane, leading to a cascading collapse that leaves people who are not used to functioning without very elaborate infrastructure being highly vulnerable.

THAT LAST point leads me to another question. If we have a process in the developing world of urbanization driven by people being forced out of rural areas, in the developed world--but also some cities in the global South--you also have the centrality of the real estate industry to modern capitalism.

I'M REALLY drawing on the work of geographers like David Harvey, who has written at length about the need to have a kind of spatial fix for capital.

So you have an over-accumulation of capital being created by this superheated, neoliberal economic system, and in order to not have a massive crash of devaluation of assets, that capital has to be parked somewhere. One of the main places to park it, literally, is in cities.

I talk in the book about the way in which we can have a quite explicitly progressive mayor like Michael Bloomberg, who commissions PlaNYC to climate-proof the city even before Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012.

But at the same time, a really central initiative of his administration is to waterfront former industrial areas like Williamsburg and Long Island City. I'm really interested in that contradiction and the ways in which, even within Bloomberg's nominally "green" initiatives, there are glaring contradictions.

A lot of these buildings are going in flood zones, like Williamsburg--or right now the far west of Midtown is kind of the cutting edge of real estate development, something that New York City elites have wanted for 30 years, ever since Rockefeller in the 1970s. But even if you take that all away, these plans for the city weren't sustainable in terms of economic and social justice, because the plan was to create affordable housing--and we know how that went.

There were big social struggles to get affordable housing in the condos that were being built, rather than the South Bronx, which is where most of the affordable housing went for many years. In fact, it was struggles in Williamsburg that led to the placement of the affordable housing units within the condos that were being built. But still, it's all pegged to area median income, meaning that much of this housing isn't really affordable for most New Yorkers.

So we're in the midst of a housing crisis, a class and race crisis with people being pushed out of neighborhoods. And what's coming in is these ridiculous luxury condos that are built right on the waterfront, with ribbon parks.

There's no real provision for the absorption of floods, which we know are going to imperil New York City increasingly in the coming years.

YOU WRITE about how, in places like Miami especially, the centrality of real estate puts enormous pressure on politicians and scientists to systematically underestimate how much sea levels are going to rise. We often think about climate change denial as being a right-wing Republican thing, but this is also true in these "blue" cities, right?

THERE'S A lot of frustration in south Florida because of the climate denial on the state level, and of course, the state capital is further north on higher grounds. So the four counties of southern Florida have formed this climate change compact and have really been trying to do good work.

But in the interviews that I did with some of the people involved in that, I found there was kind of a glaring contradiction.

The guy who was head of the climate change compact group said that if you talk to real estate developers about risk, they say, "Well, we have attorneys who we hire to think about risk"--and the timescale they're working on is decades from now. So they're not really thinking about how what they're building now imperils people, both in the present, but also, increasingly, people in the future.

It's both this kind of contradictory spatial dynamic of capitalism that I've been alluding to, but then also the ridiculously short time span of capitalism and real estate development that's at play here.

THE BOOK looks at cities all over the world, but keeps returning to New York City and Hurricane Sandy, which struck with devastating force in 2012. Why did you make New York City and Sandy a focal point?

I WANTED to write about New York because it's the capital of capital. Aside from that being a good pun, one could make the case that what happens in New York City is so important for the way that global dynamics go in general.

There's a whole school of urbanism that celebrates New York City as this compact city--as the way that the rest of the U.S. and the rest of the planet should be going. And of course, there are the climate-proofing policies which the Bloomberg administration implemented and touted--think about all those bike paths.

All of this became part of selling New York City in a competitive fight with other American cities, but also on the international stage, to show that the capital of capital was taking these things seriously, and was able to innovate and climate-proof itself.

I thought it was really key to examine those claims critically. And there's also the fact that I lived through Sandy and wanted on some level to testify about that experience--and draw on the social networks I have to be able to look at how people reacted on the ground.

One of the most fun, and also upsetting and moving, parts of doing the book was doing interviews with people who had been involved in Occupy Sandy [a grassroots relief organization created by activists], and hearing their stories of these incredibly moving experiences of doing grassroots organizing in communities like the Rockaways that were really abandoned.

These stories were about the forms of solidarity that became possible in those settings, but also the struggle against social abandonment and marginalization as the days and weeks rolled by after the storm. Given the way my life is set up right now, I didn't have access to similar stories in other parts of the world.

YOUR BOOK also talks about cities as historic sites of resistance--and speaking of Occupy Sandy, you get into some of the contradictions between, on the one hand, the necessity of fighting for relief and organizing recovery as part of building resistance, and on the other hand, how governments are, in some cases, all too willing to provide minimal relief and rely on people's volunteer networks to fill the gap. What do you see as some of the questions that the left is going to have to figure out as responding to these disasters becomes, unfortunately, more of a regular part of what we do?

IN THE chapter "Disaster Communism," I wanted to challenge the kind of unacknowledged, but nonetheless virulent, neo-fascist imagery around climate catastrophes, present and impending.

For instance, if you look at the kinds of films Hollywood is pumping out all the time--Mad Max is kind of the paradigmatic example--it's about some social climate breakdown where you've got an individual, usually a white hero, who is struggling against hoards of racialized zombies or freaks or whatever, to survive. That, I think, is the dominant way that popular culture thinks about what is going to happen as the climate emergency intensifies.

I wanted to challenge that by discussing Occupy Sandy and affirming Rebecca Solnit's argument in A Paradise Built in Hell about the ways in which, in these moments of a breakdown of hegemonic social relations, you get really vibrant forms of solidarity and the possibility of a different world emerging.

I wanted to acknowledge that, but also say that the left's fetishization of horizontalism today ignores the question of the state. That question is absolutely key. Right now, in so many instances, including in disaster relief and rebuilding, the state is all too often an enemy to be fought.

But I think the left needs to take on the question of the state, because as I try to show in the context of Occupy Sandy, social movements can effectively make claims on and mobilize to push the state to have progressive outcomes--but then, existing dominant relations just take over and marginalize those movements.

So there needs to be a theoretical reckoning with those issues, instead of saying everything is just going to be all hunky dory if we just love each other and engage in horizontal network building.

That's why I come back to this question again in my conclusion when I'm talking about retreat. Communities are going to have to move, some cities are just going to have to be abandoned--they're going underwater, and life in some of them is going to become impossible.

Do we just let the market determine who gets to move and let elites parachute out? Or do we have some planned retreat? We have to think about the role of the state, including at different scales: city governments, states themselves, and, of course, the federal government in the U.S. We need to engage the state and push it around those issues.

YOU BEGIN that conclusion with a specific example of a community in Staten Island that successfully pushed for a kind of retreat, which I think is very helpful--because this has to be state policy, but we don't want to have that happen in the command style of a Chinese Communist Party. Could you talk about how retreat is not just an abstract idea, but a real discussion that was had in different beach communities in Staten Island after Sandy?

THESE ARE communities that were developed in wetlands originally for industrial uses, but when that didn't work out, they were developed into suburban housing tracts, basically. People moved in, and they weren't aware that they were living in a place that was destined to flood repeatedly and disastrously.

So after the storm, they organized and pushed for the state Sandy rebuilding program to support them in moving out and being able to relocate as communities. A whole series of communities along the coastline in Staten Island wanted to be included, but only two actually got economic support from the state, before Governor Cuomo said, "Right, that's it."

That's a good instance of how much resistance there is to really being able to plan retreat. But it also shows that there can be a grassroots-up initiative.

Another thing that I found really impressive was the community-wide sense of importance in not just being good land stewards, but their sense of ethical obligation to future generations. They insisted that the land not be redeveloped for their housing, but let it be left as wetlands. It was really impressive.

STATEN ISLAND is the widely known as most conservative borough in New York City, so it's fascinating that these particular people were leading the way on the idea of "retreat," which is a concept I'm sure would raise the ire of the Fox News crowd.

I ALSO write about conversations that have been happening within Indigenous communities in Alaska, where climate change is happening in some of the most dramatic forms. Whole communities are essentially being washed into the sea as the permafrost melts, and the tides no longer have any kind of a buffer.

I interviewed this anthropologist who's been working with Indigenous communities like Shishmaref to have a grassroots education process, which then is part of a community mobilization to put claims on the state government and on the federal government to move communities when they decide that's what they want.

I think that offers a really great model for the way things should be done, because the U.S. obviously has such a horrible history of forced movement of people, as well as the toxic but officially non-coerced movement of people--whether it's the Trail of Tears or the Great Migration north of African Americans after the failure of Reconstruction and the implementation of Jim Crow.

Transcription by Ben Riley

Further Reading

From the archives