A System of Disasters


Mike Davis is an author and veteran activist whose many books include City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los AngelesPlanet of SlumsLate Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World and In Praise of Barbarians. He talked to Alan Maass about the natural and non-natural factors involved in Hurricane Sandy–and what shape New York and the East Coast will take in the aftermath of the super-storm.

Like All disasters, Hurricane Sandy revealed a lot about economic, social and political priorities–climate change being the question that received the most attention. What do you think are the most important factors to recognize?

The True story of Sandy is as much about real estate as global warming. Since the 1960s, everyone on the Atlantic seaboard who could afford it has wanted to live in a beach town or own a second home along the shore. This endless building boom, unrestrained by serious regional or national planning, has put several trillion dollars of prime real estate in harm's way.

It has also grotesquely aggravated the affordable housing shortage by siphoning away state and municipal investment, as well federal fiscal relief, from the reconstruction of older neighborhoods and central cities. Huge public subsidies are hidden in the mansions on barrier islands and the "historic seaport" tourist zones.

At least among scientists and actuaries, there has never been any doubt that nature would collect a huge toll from this beach property bubble. Every generation or so, the Mid-Atlantic or New England gets smacked with a super-storm capable of bringing devastation as far inland as the Great Lakes.

Until Sandy, for example, the hurricane was the 1938 monster that made landfall on Long Island as a Category 3 (much stronger than Sandy) and surged over parts of the Rhode Island shoreline as a 15- to 17-foot wave. More than 800 people died. Less than a generation later, Hurricane Hazel didn't desist until after it had drowned almost 100 people in Toronto.

Thus, even without the famous "hockey stick" of accelerated global warming, old-fashioned weather, including the occasional super-storm fueled by unusually warm coastal waters, would be producing escalating bills for storm damage. It is important for the left to understand this, since "global warming" can easily be used as an alibi to cover up the role of banks, developers and local governments in creating so much unnatural risk in the form of beach and barrier-island development.

The Storm seems to have focused the minds of the U.S. elite about climate change, more than other events–witness the Bloomberg BusinessWeekcover headline "It's global warming, stupid." But will this lead to anything different?

The Most notorious impact of climate change, of course, will be the increased frequency of super-storms. The design strength of coastal protections, urban infrastructure and large shoreline buildings will be drastically depreciated. What the insurance industry and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers previously considered to be "hundred-year events" will happen every decade; "fifty-year events" will happen every two or three years.

More invisibly, rising sea levels–which some scientists believe is happening faster on the U.S. East Coast than elsewhere–will infiltrate coastal aquifers, raising water levels and thereby abetting flooding, as well as making water unpotable. Salt water is an insidious enemy of steel and concrete, and increased corrosion will shorten the lifespan of already elderly tunnels, bridges and electrical infrastructure.

Here, class politics kicks in again. Faced with the choice of becoming more like Holland or ending up like Atlantis, cities like New York will triage storm-damage repair and investment in new infrastructure. Saving lower Manhattan, for instance, may involve the construction of enormous floodgates in New York Harbor that will deflect storm surges and higher tides toward poorer parts of Brooklyn and Queens.

But even a triage strategy of preferential public investment for the wealthy parts of the metropolis may be beyond the means of New York and Albany as well as the global insurance industry. This was the obvious message sent by Michael Bloomberg's endorsement of Barack Obama: New York and the Atlantic seaboard need federal investment on the scale of President Eisenhower's interstate highway program.

Sandy Forced the issue of climate change into the presidential campaign at the last moment, to the obvious advantage of Obama. But the record of Obama and the Democrats shows that no one should place much hope in them to deal aggressively with the threat.

Theoretically, a 20-year federal program for rebuilding coastal infrastructure and protecting harbors might make eminent Keynesian sense. But it's unlikely that Obama can disguise Stimulus Part Two as hurricane repair. I think the only question on the table at the present moment is how much austerity in lifeline programs the president will concede to make fiscal compromise possible.

Nor is it clear that the rediscovery of global warming as a clear and present danger will lead to new attempts to mitigate carbon emissions. Indeed, Sandy may have the opposite effect. A focus on repair and adaptation may further marginalize the case for carbon taxes. In any event, the shale energy revolution puts carbon in the driver's seat for another generation or two.

Natural gas will continue to reduce the dependence of utilities on coal, but the coal will be produced anyway and exported to China. No wonder that Pricewaterhouse Coopers recently warned about the cataclysmic disruption of global supply chains as 6 degrees Centigrade warming appears the most likely future in 2100.

The politics of climate adaptation will be torturous since federal spending will involve large net tax transfers from one region or sub-region to another. Why should Tea Party activists in the Great Plains care about saving New York City? What Democrat would actually support something so unpopular as federal regulation of coastal development (even though a model exists in the Mississippi's flood plain)?

And as Katrina showed, the poor inhabitants of the Gulf Coast, whose natural storm barriers have been sacrificed to the development of the oil and sulfur industries, have no advocates whatsoever. If large numbers of people are relocated from coastal target areas, they will not be the wealthy inhabitants of Hilton Head and its replicas.

Years ago, I enraged many people with an article entitled "The Case for Letting Malibu Burn." There's an equally strong case for letting elite beach resorts and second-home communities drown.

Though Less spectacularly than in New Orleans, the aftermath of the storm has exposed another failure of the federal response to disasters. In fact, it's widely acknowledged that the volunteer grassroots efforts of Occupy Sandy have been more effective. What does this say about where we go next?

The Role of Occupy Sandy confirms Rebecca Solnit's thesis that disaster response usually comes from the bottom up, through the self-organization of the victims, and it often generates temporary "utopias" of cooperation and democracy.

But to build upon both the anger and hope in such situations requires programmatic initiatives. Until Mayor Ed Koch, who held the office in the 1980s, when ethnic backlash overwhelmed borough politics, the left in New York City–ranging from Socialists to Communists to Labor Party supporters to Black liberationists–had repeatedly contested the agendas of the Rockefellers on one hand and Tammany Hall on the other. The left offered astute analysis and put forward alternative municipal platforms, winning some historic victories–rent control, public housing and so on.

Taking New Orleans as the paradigm of disaster turned to elite advantage, it's vitally important that Occupy and the "broad left" in New York anticipate, analyze and contest Bloomberg's obvious attempt to build a new corporate consensus about the city's future. And there is no better guide to how ruling class rules in Big Apple than Bob Fitch's The Assassination of New York, published by Verso.

If Nelson Rockeller could deindustrialize Manhattan and drive away hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs for sake of rising land values, what will the new game bring?  

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