Our cities under climate siege

Extreme Cities:

The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change

When New York City released its first sustainability plan more than a decade ago, it was a watershed moment for official recognition of the impending climate crisis. Pithily titled PlaNYC: A Greener, Greater New York, the plan signaled that urban political institutions have a special role to play in tackling climate change. A central premise of these efforts, pushed by the mayoral administration of capitalist technocrat extraordinaire Michael Bloomberg, held that addressing environmental issues in a market-friendly way would make life better for all city residents.

A new book cuts through this green capitalist hype and shows instead that life under climate change has grown increasingly precarious for working-class people living in major urban centers in the twenty-first century. Ashley Dawson’s Extreme Cities provides a sweeping narrative that ties together disparate calamities, from the plight of tens of thousands of public housing residents in New York City after Hurricane Sandy to the “water refugees” fleeing the increasingly drought-stricken Brazilian megacity of Sao Paulo.

“The age of disaster is also the age of the city,” Dawson writes. With more than half of humanity living in urban areas, and the churn of neoliberal capitalism constantly driving millions more off the land, Dawson sees cities as “the defining social and ecological phenomenon of the twenty-first century.” That this rapid urbanization of the globe is happening disproportionately in coastal areas, and that it coincides with accelerating sea-level rise and historic levels of inequality, means that cities “are at the forefront of the coming climate chaos, their natural vulnerabilities heightened by social injustice.”

To illustrate this argument, Dawson draws on examples from Miami to Jakarta, though his account focuses heavily on New York City. The book is wide-ranging in its scope. It covers everything from the decay and privatization of public services and the rise of hyper-aggressive policing and immigration controls, to gentrification and the growing threat of extreme weather events. Dawson draws on a variety of disciplines and source materials, including firsthand interviews with activists and organizers that provide a bottom-up view of contemporary urban struggles for social justice.

He also leans on familiar left names like Christian Parenti, Rebecca Solnit, Naomi Klein, Mike Davis, and David Harvey. Extreme Cities ultimately links various urban crises back to an economic system that prioritizes the profits of the 1 percent over the lives and homes of the working majority around the globe. It is built around thematic chapters that cover three broad topics: Real estate development and the built environment; green capitalist ideology and the urban boosterism that serves to mask the depths of elite racism and violence; and the possibilities for bottom-up solidarity in the face of calamity, or what Dawson calls “disaster communism.”

The first third of the book examines the role of the real estate industry and large-scale engineering projects within the extreme city. Following Marxist geographers like David Harvey, Dawson identifies “the continuing significance of urban redevelopment to global capitalism” and argues that this investment plays a critical role in relieving pressure on the system’s tendency toward economic crisis. Yet while it may provide an outlet for profitable investment, the real estate market’s “irrational and unsustainable” development patterns intensify both economic polarization and environmental destruction.

Dawson’s particular strength is how he interrogates many of today’s sustainability mega-projects from the forty billion dollar Great Garuda project in Jakarta which will build the world’s largest flood protection barrier, to the HUD-sponsored “Rebuild by Design” competition in New York and New Jersey following Hurricane Sandy. Examining these in some technical detail, Dawson finds that the green gloss accompanying these projects hides an insidious double reality. First, these projects often exacerbate pre-existing social inequalities: witness the Great Garuda’s sale of luxury homes on artificial islands to finance the project, which will displace of thousands of impoverished squatters.

Second, the environmental aspirations of these projects are fatally compromised by capitalism’s profit-making imperative. Case in point: the climate scientists hired as consultants for New York’s resiliency policies argued for a retreat from flood-prone coastal areas. Unwilling to cede valuable land back to nature, the city has instead doubled down on encouraging new development in flood zones.

Dawson rightly skewers New York’s reliance on real estate development as a tool to stormproof the city. While certain flood-proof designs can offset near-term risk, he argues, the central danger in climate change is just how little we know about future risks. Thus, in the name of “urban resiliency,” massive resources are sunk into buildings and infrastructure that may soon prove to be unable to cope with the very problems they are supposed to address. “The growth imperative that shaped PlaNYC,” Dawson writes, created “no incentive for thinking in the longer term.”

The middle chapters of Dawson’s book shift from the built environment to the ideological underpinnings of the elites who rule our cities. He demolishes the green rhetoric—what he calls “the jargon of resilience” and sustainability—promoted by figures like Bloomberg, Al Gore, and current NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio, as well as a cadre of pro-market urbanist intellectuals. They aspire to treat the symptoms of capitalist climate disaster “without fundamentally transforming the conditions that give rise” to the extreme city.

As a result, Dawson argues, these technocratic, liberal elites have more in common with climate change-denying right wingers than is typically acknowledged. In a particularly sharp chapter on “Climate Apartheid,” Dawson exposes how the strategies of both the conservative and liberal elite for managing climate-related displacement and migration rely on Malthusianism, xenophobia, and militarism. Many of the same Western politicians who drove through the Paris Climate Accords now oversee draconian border arrangements and immigration controls borrowed from neo-conservatives. These policies punish the victims of climate change (and of Western military adventures) for which Europe and the United States are disproportionately responsible.

Yet if liberal urban sustainability policies are more rhetoric than reality, where are we to look for solutions to impending disaster? Dawson points to resistance movements and local community self-organization as the missing ingredient needed to combat the extreme risks posed to workers and the oppressed living in twenty-first-century capitalist cities. “It is the poor who are the most vulnerable to cascading climate disruptions in cities,” Dawson writes, and “capitalist states and the elites who control them are not going to do the right thing unless they are forced to do so by mass mobilizations from below.”

His chapter on “Disaster Communism” presents a thought-provoking assessment of several specific experiences of resistance, and builds on arguments made by Solnit, Klein, and others. In Dawson’s estimation, the coming storms may actually create space for a revolutionary left to make gains, in the inevitable moments when “normal” social order breaks down. “Communal solidarities forged in the face of calamity,” Dawson writes, “may spark a more long-term process in which a more just and ecologically sustainable society, based on genuine human needs, begins to come into view.”

It’s a hopeful vision in the face of an unarguably bleak issue. Dawson thus provides a welcome call for a new era of radical left-wing organizing, and for the creation of “new forms of communism for disastrous times,” tied to “collective, democratic planning” and “equitable and sustainable control over the planetary commons.”

Dawson, however, has trouble identifying what social forces, organizations, and political parties have the power and interest to fight for “disaster communism.” As a result, he falls back on support for Democratic Party politicians and progressive NGOs. He calls “the election of a progressive mayor like Bill de Blasio” an “impressive electoral gain” for the movement. In reality de Blasio is exactly the kind of politician Dawson criticizes elsewhere in the book, someone in hock to real estate developers and at best committed to managing the system with a human face.

He also uncritically endorses several Democratic Party-aligned NGOs as leading examples of the struggles against the extreme city. But far from being leaders of “disaster communism,” such NGOs are dependent on liberal foundations, which are pro-capitalist and therefore reluctant to fund struggles that threaten the system. Moreover, such NGOs substitute professional paid staff for the democratic self-organization of the oppressed and exploited to fight for their own liberation.

Part of the reason for Dawson’s trouble in identifying the source for change is his focus on cities separate from the national and world capitalist system. In reality, the global capitalist economy, not the local ones of discrete cities, drives climate change, and the system’s division into competing nation-states over profit and power makes it impossible for their rulers, including liberal ones like Obama, to solve the growing list of environmental crises.

This recognition of the place of cities in the national and world system also helps locate what social group has the social power to win reforms in the climate justice movement—the working class. As the principal victim of environmental devastation, it is uniquely positioned to organize, strike, and eventually rip up the roots of climate change in the world system. Of course, this is a long-term goal.

But today, there possibilities for socialists to make concrete links between workplace struggles and the struggle against climate change. For example, the teachers in West Virginia raised the demand during their recent strike to fund their salaries and schools by taxing the environmentally devastating fossil-fuel industry. That is the basis on which to build immediate struggles for reform on the road to revolution.

Despite these criticisms, Extreme Cities is a good place for the left to start discussing and debating our future on a hotter, more urban, and more dangerous planet. With a forceful critique of capitalism’s inequality and ecological degradation, and an inspiring take on possible founts of future resistance, Dawson’s book will engage and challenge both readers new to left-wing ideas as well as experienced radicals. “We face a baleful collective reckoning,” he writes. “Urban civilization and human solidarity will not endure the coming planetary crises without a revival of aggressively utopian thought.”

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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