Destroyed communities in Toa Alta, Puerto Rico, in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in September 2017. Photo: AP

There’s ongoing debate within the scientific community surrounding the geologic epoch in which we’re living. The period since the end of the last glaciation roughly 12,000 years ago is generally referred to as the Holocene. But some argue that humanity’s impacts on the planet, from climate change to mass extinction, have been significant enough that we’ve entered a new epoch—the Anthropocene—in which our collective actions are setting the world on a new course.

In his new book Extreme Cities: The Perils and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change, CUNY professor Ashley Dawson argues that “Anthropocene” doesn’t take things far enough. We are living, Dawson says, in the Oliganthropocene, “the era in which a small fraction of humanity exploited the planet’s fragile environmental systems, not to mention immense numbers of their fellow human beings, beyond the point of sustainability.” Capitalism’s emphasis on expansion has created vulnerable coastal cities in which the poor bear an outsized burden during natural disasters, a reality that’s been made abundantly clear by the 2017 hurricane season. Working towards an equitable future in the face of the coming storms will mean radically rethinking our economic system and relationships with each other.

Earther chatted with Dawson about the book, which was released this week. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


Earther: There’s a month left of hurricane season now and the damage from Harvey, Irma, and Maria is already estimated to cost around $3 billion. Do you think we’re reaching a breaking point where even free market die-hards will be forced to acknowledge that this is unsustainable?

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Ashley Dawson: I think that free market die-hards are going to find ways to make money off the crises that are wracking cities both in the global north and in the global south. They’ll only really acknowledge that it’s unsustainable if they’re pushed to do that by very strong social movements. They’ve got big capital, so there has to be really strong pushback. You know, the situation in Puerto Rico is horrendous and seems to be growing worse by the day. The challenges that we face as the planet warms are going to get more cataclysmic—we’re just seeing a foretaste of what’s in the pipeline. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t going to be a lot of fighting back. These increasingly extreme weather conditions are going to provoke uprisings and revolutionary movements in many cases.

Earther: In your book you mention Louisiana, where “the oil and natural gas companies need coastal restoration just as much if not more than the citizens of the delta.” As corporations start to come to terms with climate change, will their efforts at restoration and damage mitigation be helpful? Or will these efforts exacerbate existing inequality?

Image: Verso Books

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AD: Yeah, I think that there’s a lot of talk around the idea [that] free market dynamics and innovations are going to lead to solutions to climate catastrophe. I want to really challenge those arguments by pointing out the ways in which free market dynamics are actually militating against sustainability in cities. Look at New York City under Mayor Bloomberg. There was this big push to have a green plan, and yet large development was taking place in flood zones. And Bloomberg is obviously on the liberal wing of big capital in the United States, so there are much more extreme versions.

The comportment of big oil companies in Louisiana is a really powerful instance of greenwashing. You’ve got these oil corporations that carved up the Mississippi Delta for many, many decades knowing that what they were doing was going to make residents of the Delta far more vulnerable to storms and hurricanes coming in off the Gulf of Mexico. Now that their own [oil] extraction infrastructure is imperiled by what they’ve done, they’re finally saying, “We need to have the federal government come in here,” and they’ve formed these kind of “conservation organizations” that are calling for restoration of the Delta wetlands. But they’re not willing to foot any of the bill. I think one has to be very, very skeptical.

You may have heard, Elon Musk has been talking to the governor of Puerto Rico and saying, “Tesla’s gonna go down there and save the island.” But, you know. The idea that Tesla is going to be able to provide power for over 3 million people on the island and is gonna do it in a way that really supports people who don’t have very much access to capital is highly dubious. So there might be some useful demonstration projects that come out of Tesla’s efforts, but my argument would be that there really has to be a social movement pushing for energy as a common good for the people and pushing against marginalization and energy poverty.

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RM: In your chapter “Disaster Communism” you talk about organizations like Occupy Sandy that spring up in the wake of crises, but you point out they don’t really take root deeply enough to present a challenge to the existing order. How could organizations like Occupy Sandy, homegrown networks that try to make disaster relief more equitable when FEMA fails, become more effective?

AD: What I wanted to do in that chapter was challenge the kind of settler-colonial survivalist imaginary that Hollywood is peddling, which consequently becomes the normative way that we think about what’s going happen as climate catastrophe begins to bite deeper. The Mad Max syndrome, you know? You’ve got one, usually white, guy fighting for survival.

Earther: Sean Penn down there with a boat after Hurricane Katrina.

AD: Yeah! I mean, all of the zombie culture that surrounds us today in the United States—what is that other than white fear of racialized hordes and implicitly of climate migrants? Climate apartheid really permeates our ideas about what happens in the context of crisis. [But contrary to the grim dystopia narratives] actually, you get this kind of amazing social mobilization and incredible horizontal ties.

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Aerial view of a flooded neighborhood in New Orleans, shortly after Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005. Photo: AP

But I also wanted to challenge the fetishization of horizontal-ism, which I think is somewhat dominant in parts of the left in the United States today. As you move from the immediate moment of disaster relief to reconstruction processes, that’s where existing organizations and existing power hierarchies begin to marginalize the horizontal organizations that spring up. And so, to come back to your initial question, the way to really make sure that those organizations continue to gain some purchase is for them to work in tandem with existing movements on the ground that are fighting for long-term reconstruction of the city. Tenant’s rights organizations, anti-gentrification organizations, environmental justice organizations, you know.

The government has been taken over by elites in the city ever since the 1970's and they’ve pretty much dominated politics in the city ever since. But I do think that the election of Bill de Blasio wouldn’t have been possible without the mobilization of many of these organizations in and after Sandy. They played an important role in trying to think about a more egalitarian city and a more just reconstruction process.

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Earther: Yeah, although It doesn’t seem like de Blasio has a much firmer grasp on how to face what’s coming. The Village Voice ran a piece last year on waterfront development and the much reviled Brooklyn-Queens Streetcar, a $4 billion dollar project whose path falls entirely in the floodplain. It appears to have been put on hold, but the city’s still throwing huge amounts of money to waterfront developers and hoping a seawall will save them.

AD: No, no, absolutely not. The dynamics in the city that I was describing previously are still in play. I mean, I do think the shift from [Bloomberg’s environmental plan] PlaNYC to [de Blasio’s] 1 NYC, did bring some significant changes but the underlying dynamics are still highly unsustainable. You look at the big storm doors that the city spent 600 million dollars putting in on the entrance to the 1 train at South Ferry—if you just walk 400 yards north you can see these gratings that let air into the subway. So, they have these very nice, sophisticated looking doors on the actual entrance to the subway but what would happen to the hundreds of miles of other subway entrances that are vulnerable? And that’s not even to talk about all the sewage treatment plants and the development of Manhattan’s far west side. There are just so many contradictions which places like New York still suffer from, I think.

Earther: Early in the book you mention a very frightening estimate of sea level rise by the University of Miami’s Department of Geological Science chair, Hal Wanless. He predicts around 70 to 80 feet and he’s very matter of fact about it. “Last time we were at the same CO2 levels we have now, that was where the sea was. Pretty straightforward.” He predicts 10-30 feet by the end of the century.

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Obviously there’s a huge variable in there, but if seawalls can’t help and will only displace the problem, is accepting that and beginning to prepare now, or contract the city now, our best hope for anything resembling an equitable society? 

AD: I think so. Obviously some cities are more threatened than others and the cities that are most threatened are cities in the global south. Lots of really, really difficult situations.

[But] I wanted to just mention one thing that I was happy to find out quite recently after I finished writing the book. I saw that there’s an initiative in South Florida, where people are understandably very angry. They have a climate change denying governor and that the federal government really isn’t going to help them anytime soon. But recently I read about an initiative to move people from working-class neighborhoods, predominantly people of color—communities that are really threatened by flooding—away from the coastlines towards the center of the state which has a kind of raised, limestone spine that goes all the way down the middle. And to build affordable housing there that has integrated public transportation—trying to develop a new axis of living down the center of Florida. And I think that’s the kind of thing that folks like the mayor of South Miami, Phil Stoddard, have been calling for. You know? Not abandoning people to their fate as the tides begin to rise.

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Rebecca McCarthy is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn.