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An Uneven Disaster

Q & A with Ashley Dawson

Without so much as an intermission—and even before the chemical soup of floodwaters had fully receded from the freeways and suburbs of Houston—Hurricane Irma, one of the strongest storms to form over the Atlantic, plowed into the Caribbean islands and Florida, leaving millions of people without power and causing billions of dollars of damage, damage that would have been more expensive still if Irma’s effects had been acutely felt in the ascendant canyons of luxury highrises that define the rapidly sinking metropolis of Miami. 

Miami is just one of the titular “extreme cities” on the frontlines of climate change explored in Ashley Dawson’s latest book, out next month from Verso. From New York, Jakarta, and São Paulo, Dawson explores how the doctrine of neoliberalism, irrational and uneven real estate development, and racism have only exacerbated the natural vulnerabilities of coastal cities in developed nations but particularly in the Global South, leaving us woefully ill-equipped to adapt to rising temperatures and tides in the era of climate change. Operating far to the left of the mainstream media’s disquietude and disaster porn, Dawson resists the idealistic “sustainability” and “resilience” initiatives of the marketplace—whether it’s the sea wall planned to envelop Lower Manhattan or the meek, nonbinding climate pacts of capitalist nations—calling instead for a radical reconfiguring of humanity’s place in nature and the end of the economic growth imperative.

I met with Professor Dawson the morning that chemicals left to overheat ignited in a noxious plume at the flooded Arkema plant just outside of Houston, a citadel of petrochemical manufacturing. This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 


 Zach Webb: The media is quick to describe how the shadow of climate change hangs over Harvey and Irma, and they’ve even gone so far as to blast Houston’s suburban sprawl as exacerbating the damage. But so far, capitalism has been absent in a lot of the media chatter.

Ashley Dawson: It’s important to acknowledge that the United States has had a fundamentally contradictory form of urban development over the last half century. But to not connect that to fossil fuels, racism, and capitalism is to ignore the much bigger picture. You don’t really get at the root of the problem if you just talk about sprawl. That ignores the fact that Houston is the center of the fossil fuel industry. As long as you keep pumping carbon into the atmosphere, Houston is going to get hit with worse and worse storms. This is a combined and uneven disaster and it’s important to see how that plays out both in Houston and its environs—how the city is not equal, the impact of storms is not equal, and rebuilding is not equal.

ZW: In the book, you touch on Neil Smith’s argument that there is no such thing as a truly natural disaster, that “in every phase and aspect of a disaster . . . the contours of disaster and the difference between who lives and who dies is to a greater or lesser extent a social calculus.” How do you see this notion converging or diverging with what’s happening with Harvey and Irma?

AD: Every stage of so-called “natural disasters” is connected to anthropogenic impacts, and if you acknowledge those things, you begin to get at the ways in which we have a whole system that is corrupt and destructive of the planet and manifests in environment injustice. It raises really big questions about what’s going to happen in terms of the clean up: who’s going to get significant funding to deal with both the immediate forms of damage but also what Rob Nixon calls “slow violence,” the kind of long-term toxicity that seeps into people’s bodies and doesn’t manifest for a decade or half a century or something like that. Are we going to provide funding, first and foremost, to communities living close to refineries and other toxic industries to be able to move away from these sites? Or is the funding for reconstruction going to go to wealthy households?

FEMA insurance for rebuilding after so-called “natural disasters” goes disproportionately to wealthy households. There has to be a real pushback against that kind of thing—and against all the other kinds of disaster capitalism that we’ve seen unfolding in the past after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and Hurricane Sandy.

ZW: Harvey and Irma could end up costing upwards of $290 billion. If this type of storm ceases to be an anomaly, the project of rebuilding over and over will obviously become untenable. In the book, you broach the somewhat taboo subject of retreat.

AD: There are all different kinds of retreat. You can retreat vertically by raising houses. You can retreat from particular geographical parts of the city that are disproportionately affected by flooding. But, as you suggest, Harvey and Irma also raise questions about retreating from entire cities and regions that are particularly hard hit by climate chaos.

One of the big problems is that after Tropical Storm Allison hit Houston in 2001, there were many houses that were left in the one-hundred-year floodplain, and funding was not provided for people to be able to move out of those areas. It would make sense to give people buyouts to be able to move out of those areas—as a community, not necessarily as individuals.

Buyout policies fly in the face of the macho American idea that we can build it back. Retreat is still very much a taboo subject.

But such buyout policies fly in the face of the macho American idea that we can build it back—to use the language of the New York State post-Sandy rebuilding plan. When folks in Staten Island fought to be able to move away from coastlines after Sandy, a few communities were successful in getting state funding, but most of them were shut down. It’s still very much a taboo subject.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) just gave one of its first major grants to the Lake Charles band of indigenous people who live in the Mississippi Delta. They got almost fifty million dollars to move as a community away from their land, which is almost totally submerged at this point. That’s one of the first policy acknowledgments that a whole community needs to move, so we aren’t very far down the line with these discussions.

We need to have these conversations, and they need to be framed by questions of climate justice. How are we really going to do right by communities that are on the front lines and are disproportionately vulnerable because of their economic status?

The people of the Global South are really not responsible for climate change, but they are being devastated by it. Millions of people have been displaced in India and Bangladesh over the last month by historical flooding. Where are those people going to go? Are we going to close our doors and refuse to allow migrants in and give in to the kind of heightened racism that we see with the Trump administration and which is tearing Europe apart?

Everything we’ve taken for granted in the modern epoch is shifting; the ground is changing under our feet. Nation states and forms of geopolitics that we assume to be in place are all going to be reconfigured—if not within our generation than within the next. We need to have antiracist climate justice arguments and policy proposals for how deal with it all. And of course at the very bottom of it, as I argue in my book, we need to talk about ending capitalism, this system which is based on infinite expansion on a finite planet and is leading to ecocide.

ZW: Throughout the book, you press on the inadequacy of a lot of the concepts and terms ingrained in the conversations we have about climate change. One of them is the conceptualization of Society and Nature as two distinct, impenetrable units wherein Nature is but a tap of cheap resources, a sink for waste, a force to be controlled, and—occasionally—a site for aesthetic quarantine. You present, for instance, the “frictionless spectacle” of Central Park, “an elaborate artifice in which nature [is] presented in various guises.” You call for a conceptualization of humanity in nature, the complex ways in which we are intertwined—a project advanced by the likes of Jason Moore in Capitalism in the Web of Life. Would you talk just a little bit about what this looks like?

AD: Jason Moore is right that human beings have engaged in such sweeping transformations of the environment that the idea that there is some kind of pristine spot that is completely outside anthropogenic impact is ridiculous.

But even though we’ve really transformed nature in certain ways, that doesn’t mean that nature doesn’t bite us back. In the book, I talk about what I call “environmental blowback,” and I use the example of the Mississippi River, which engineers built levees around to try to prevent flooding in the Mississippi River basin. What that did was just to raise the river and contribute to more catastrophic flooding, and it ultimately lead to a massive loss of delta land because when the flooding is stopped, sediment is prevented from replenishing wetland, and that sediment just gets shot out off into the Gulf of Mexico where it’s useless. The Mississippi delta lands, the marshlands that extend for about fifty miles off New Orleans are disappearing at the rate of about a football field an hour. As a result, New Orleans is no longer protected from storm surges, hurricanes, and other forms of extreme weather coming toward it. So we can see that the way in which we try to control nature and think about nature in this very mechanistic, Enlightenment-era way as made up of these little isolated pieces rather than in holistic terms can often lead to adverse consequences.

ZW: Alongside that, you discuss the language of “resilience,” the ability of a system to absorb, recover from, and adapt to adverse events—in other words, the ability of capitalism to insulate itself from collapse and derive profit from an environmental cataclysm. If a return to “stasis” or “equilibrium” is inadequate and “resilience” is limited—then what?

AD: Resilience is a term that’s all over the place now—people want to be psychically resilient, the anti-terrorist authorities in the United States are trying to build resilience in all sorts of different ways. In terms of climate-proofing cities, this has become a key term. It’s used by the Rockefeller Foundation. Resilience is on everyone’s lips.

The appropriation of resilience by neoliberal discourse legitimates the idea that the market is a solution to all the environmental problems we face.

In the book, I talk about how Friedrich Hayek, one the grandfathers of neoliberalism, appropriated the idea to talk about capitalist economies. The argument that he made was that if environmental systems can survive even though they they’re complex and some parts of them may break down or shift to other states but continue, then we can think about capitalism in the same way. And that means that we shouldn’t intervene in it and that crises are actually good because they strengthen the system, they make it more resilient as a whole. I’m critical of that appropriation of resilience by neoliberal discourse because it legitimates the idea that the market is a solution to all the environmental problems we face.

ZW: One of those much-hyped “resiliency projects” or “tactical urbanist interventions” discussed in the book is the Big U which will ostensibly protect Lower Manhattan (i.e. Wall Street) from rising tides. Should projects of that nature be rejected outright not only for giving a false sense of security but also for shielding capitalism from collapse?

AD: Rejecting wholesale, no. Landscape architecture has important things to contribute. It is much more holistic and tries to work with natural systems in a way that is much more thoughtful than traditional engineering as practices by the Army Corps of Engineers, and it also tries to work with local communities and be sensitive to under-represented communities and their needs. Important work is being done, but all too often the proposals don’t take the bigger picture of the city and its uneven development into context.

Building a wall around the bottom of Manhattan ignores what happens above the wall—which only goes up to about Forty Second Street on both sides. So there are lots of problems with the Big U proposal, but, there was a community mobilization around its design. One of the people I interviewed in the course of the book who worked with Occupy Sandy subsequently worked with the Good Old Lower East Side—a really important, predominantly Latino grassroots housing group based in the Lower East Side. They have a group called Lower East Side Ready that worked strenuously to get concessions in the Big U proposal to make it more community friendly—to widen the berm so that they could be community park spaces for recreation. For communities that don’t have access to green space and where asthma is a huge problem, these are really important victories that should be built on.

But there’s a danger that we’re so desperate to have some hopeful perspective that we’re really not engaged in the bigger critique of what capitalism is doing and the ways that development is continuing to endanger vulnerable people in cities, so I want to always come back to that.

ZW: Thinking about New York City as a whole, one of the most frustrating statistics referenced in the book is that twenty-four percent of the apartments in New York are not used as primary residences and are thus vacant for considerable spans of time throughout the year. Should we take them back for the benefit of the public through—to use Connor Kilpatrick’s term—“ecstatic expropriation?”

AD: That would be really lovely. We’ve got a huge housing crisis. New York City is pretty unique in the United States in its strong social democratic tradition. We have public housing—still—and a functioning public housing authority which most American cities don’t have. St. Louis famously demolished the Pruitt–Igoe housing. Chicago is demolishing its public housing. New York City hasn’t. We have a law that protects homeless people and guarantees them a bed for the night and because of that, vast majorities of New York City’s absolutely horrible number of homeless people—it’s over 60,000 now—are not sleeping out on the streets, but they’re also kind of invisible.

What we’ve done to solve the housing crisis is completely incommensurate. It’s been a giveaway to wealthy developers. What I try to show in the book is that there was a real missed opportunity; we had all these areas that were formerly industrial, like Williamsburg and Long Island City. The city could have taken those over and provided adequate housing for working class communities and turned them into green spaces that could absorb storm surges.

Instead, we have these tiny little ribbon parks with their cute little “wild” plants à la High Line—and then right behind them, these luxury condo glass walls with rich people living in them. We set aside a tiny percentage for supposedly “affordable” housing, but since it’s pegged to the median income in the city, it’s not really affordable to working class people, let alone middle-income people. Schoolteachers can’t afford that stuff.

Until recently, the huge scandal was that people would be building those luxury condos in Williamsburg, DUMBO, and all these places—and they didn’t actually have to put the affordable housing in the building, so most of it went into the South Bronx. It was about the removal of poor people of color, which has a long tradition in the United States. Urban development is a form of cleansing.

It’s a terribly unfair policy that makes the city more extreme and less accessible—and, at the same time, it raises the vulnerability of the city to natural disasters. Even though Mayor Bloomberg—who was responsible for a lot of these policies—talked a lot about the green city and while he did build lots of bike lanes (which are great) and planted lots of trees (which is important), to really get at the crux of the problem requires challenging development and real estate capital.

ZW: Journalist Sasha Lilley gives us another ism: catastrophism, where “an awareness of the scale or severity of catastrophe does not ineluctably steer one down the path of radical politics.” It just as easily inspires pessimism, passivity, and even increased hedonism in the face of environmental collapse. Is it a failure of empathy? What is it? How do we get past it?

AD: Sasha’s right about those dangers, but we can’t back off our analysis of planetary ecocide and what’s driving it. The oceans are acidifying. We’re in the middle of a massive extinction crisis. It’s not clear that industrial agriculture’s going to be sustainable for much longer in vast parts of the planet—and even if it is, it’s one of the primary factors driving environmental breakdown—and because of neoliberalism, we’ve been driving the peasantry into cities which are responsible for seventy percent of carbon emissions. And that’s not to even talk about petroculture and fossil capitalism.

People are willing to talk about the fatal contradictions of capitalism again.

We have to be able to talk about all this stuff and also to talk about ways to fight against it. That’s the key. That’s how you prevent people from just going, “awh, fuck it, I’m just going to get drunk or stoned.” We need to have a plan of action while keeping in mind how bad things are.

I would say we’re just taking baby steps in that regard. I’m very aware of that in my book. When I start talking about retreat and what we can do and how we need a plan on a national scale to completely shift populations away from vulnerable coasts, I don’t know how that’s going to be received because I feel like I’m really talking like a wild-eyed Jeremiah. People may not be talking about that now—but what about in a generation or two in the future?

People in the Global South are getting it in the neck first, and we have a responsibility above all to think about solidarity with them, to find ways to fight in solidarity with them against both imperialist capital and also in solidarity in struggles against local corrupt elites. We need a plan that heads off disaster capitalism, racism, and empire; elites will find ways to take advantage of this crisis unless we are able to articulate progressive alternatives.

ZW: You do offer a few bright spots in the book. One of them is Occupy Sandy, the autonomous mutual aid groups born of Occupy Wall Street that eschewed hierarchy in order to respond to Hurricane Sandy where federal government relief efforts were woefully inadequate. Similarly, Kate Aronoff, writing in Dissent, calls for a revival of the U.S. rural electric cooperatives created during the New Deal. Is this sort of dual power model a way forward?

AD: Dual power is unsustainable. Rebecca Solnit’s wonderful study of paradises that emerge from hellish situations of natural disasters is really true. Forms of horizontal connection like Occupy Sandy—typically with contemporary information technology—can be very nimble and make really important connections and allow incredible forms of popular relief and resistance. But as long as the state is controlled by the bourgeoisie, a group of reactionary capitalists, those initiatives will be dismantled, circumvented, routed, or smashed.

It’s important to think about those moments of horizontal resistance, horizontal emergence and support them and get them to a state where they’re going to be capable of essentially taking over state power and transforming the state. These conversations are very much incipient. For a generation at least, no one wanted to talk about taking state power because things went so badly in the Soviet Union, but if you don’t start theorizing those issues and preparing for them, you end up, I think, with the Right controlling the really central levers of our society and being able to smash popular resistance.

We potentially face a dire future, but people are finally throwing off their malaise, the sense that there’s no horizon of possibility and that you can’t really talk about the fatal contradictions of capitalism. People are willing to talk about those things again. Acknowledging the gravity of the crisis should go hand in hand with acknowledging the radicalism of the possible solutions we’ll need to adopt to address it in a just manner.