The U.S. environmental movement has often historically put “cities” in opposition to “nature.” Yet over half the world’s population now lives in cities, and the natural disasters of the last several years have shown how extreme weather can be most devastating to the urban poor—Hurricane Katrina drowning elderly people in New Orleans—and how the social inequality intensifies that, like Hurricane Maria devastating a Puerto Rico hobbled by debt and a shaky electrical-power infrastructure.
In Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change, Ashley Dawson asserts that while cities are the sites of the most greenhouse-gas emissions, “it is in the extreme city that the most important struggles for human survival will take place.” He defines “extreme city” as an urban space where extreme economic and political inequality threaten its own sustainability. How a city copes with that “has everything to do with how well it will weather the storms that are bearing down upon humanity.”
While we know about the dire predictions of rising temperatures, acidification of the oceans, melting glaciers and polar ice, and rising waters, why don’t we talk about this existential threat more often? Dawson suggests that because there is so much global wealth centered in cities and invested in urban real estate, those in economic and political power do not want the rest of us to talk about what is about to happen. He believes we will inevitably be forced to retreat from the coastal and riverine cities and resettle inland.
Extreme Cities is well-researched and accessibly written. Its main focus is New York City, primarily as a case study of the effects of climate change and the social movements responding to it. He weaves in experiences and experiments from other cities but always returns to Gotham’s history and future.
The vast majority of major world cities have been built next to water — oceans, rivers, deltas and lakes — and if global warming melts the polar icecaps, sea levels could rise as much as 50 feet over the next century. Dawson deftly shows us how building hard barriers against rising water is doomed to fail, that we need to work with, not against, the natural systems around us and understand that water must go somewhere, and the land must be replenished with residue that the water can bring back to the shore. He compares cities in Holland, which are recognizing this, with Louisiana, where with fossil-fuel barons controlling the state and local governments, the coast is shrinking because the wetlands and marshlands that historically protected the land from floods have been destroyed for oil drilling and shipping.
Dawson takes a critical but respectful view of Occupy Sandy, the grass-roots community-support effort that morphed out of Occupy Wall Street when Superstorm Sandy hit New York City in 2012. Occupy Sandy attempted to rebuild homes and support communities, particularly in the Rockaways. But while thousands of people responded to the call for help, like the city school food-service workers who volunteered to serve meals to the hundreds of people sleeping on cots in high-school gyms, he also shows how these loving attempts at help can feed into the hands of governments that have little or no interest in addressing the underlying issues that create both climate change and the inequality that exacerbates its effects. He points to the solidarity of groups that are part of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, the Alliance for a Just Rebuilding and to other grassroots efforts to give decision-making and resource-allocating power to the people in our most affected communities.
On the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, thousands of New Yorkers rallied and marched to demand immediate action on climate justice. Their demands fit neatly into Dawson’s paradigm: Get Sandy victims back in their homes, repair public housing, stop building on waterfronts, retrofit all large buildings to reduce emissions, create good union jobs in the renewable economy, divest all public pension funds from fossil-fuel stocks, systematically get to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050, levy a pollution (or carbon) tax to pay for climate projects, have public ownership of renewable energy grids and enable a full and just recovery for Puerto Rico.
These are preliminary answers to the complex questions of how to deal with catastrophic climate chaos. Ultimately, Dawson states, the problem is capitalism. It is a system that seeks profits above all. That means it has no regard for the natural environment, requires constant growth, dumps its toxic residues in poor communities and communities of color and resists planning and regulation — and it cannot correct itself.
Dawson looks toward the efforts of “energy democracy” or nationalization of renewable energy, and advocates for the developed nations that caused climate change to pay a “climate debt” to developing nations so they don’t have to add further destruction to our planet in order to feed their people. His is a utopian vision of shared interests, of interdependent communities and peoples, of the joy of communities and working toward the common good. He would ask us to keep those coalitions intact in order to grow our shared power, to keep getting the people most affected to make the decisions needed for our common futures and to shift the balance of power to the people and away from capitalist control.
Can we do that? Short of that transformation of political activism and will, short of system change, we will be victims of our own lethargy in the face of climate chaos.
Photo credit: Matthew Henry.