Interview: Ashley Dawson, Extreme Cities

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written by

Jonny Gordon-Farleigh

May 27, 2020

This article was first published in Stir Magazine, Autumn 2018. To support our journalism, purchase this issue or an annual subscription.

The COVID-19 pandemic has re-engaged international governments and communities to explore what an economic recovery might look like. The climate emergency presents an opportunity for us to foreground climate change as an economic and social issue, protecting the most vulnerable communities in the process.

Your book Extreme Cities explores the“global convergence of climate change and urbanisation.” Could you explain why the world’s cities are ground zero for climate change? 

There is the brute demographic fact that most human beings live in cities. So when you start to think about how anthropogenic climate change is going to affect masses of people, especially with cities increasingly concentrated in coastal regions, it’s connected to how globalisation has unfolded over the past half century. People have poured into coastal regions around the world as rural communities have been evicted from their land in the Global South. Many of these displaced people end up in precisely the coastal cities most threatened by rising sea levels today. 

Then there are the specific characteristics of cities in terms of their infrastructure. In cities you have masses of people concentrated in relatively small areas, dependent on a highly elaborate infrastructure for the provision of basic needs, such as sewage and transportation. All of this infrastructure can be easily knocked out by a large storm, or slower moving disaster, such as sea level rise. So there are the demographic factors I mentioned and then there are the ways in which political or material changes like the starvation of public infrastructure as a result of neoliberalism can affect cities. 

Cities are also both major drivers of climate change, as well as its principal victims. So in addition to be extremely vulnerable, most carbon emissions are emitted from cities, which is not to say that agriculture and other forms of production are not important contributors. But the built infrastructure and urban fabric of cities are significant drivers of climate change, so they are both perpetrators and victims.  

You also argue that we need to shift our thinking around climate change from rural areas to cities. Could you elaborate? 

Absolutely. There is a long intellectual tradition that presents nature and culture as opposites. This plays out in how we think about cities. Raymond Williams, the great British cultural critic, wrote The Country and the City, a book which outlines the way that urban and country life were presented as antithetical – as opposites to one another – across the centuries. I think this attitude still shapes how major environmental organisations in the US, such as the Sierra Club or the Natural Resources Defense Council, were established to conserve “wilderness.” Firstly, this concept is racist. What has been described as wilderness, and where there have been conservation strategies, has been home to First Nation communities for centuries. Once this process started, we developed this cultural idea that the city was outside nature. So most of those in the environmental movement are not thinking about cities as sites where natural processes are taking place, or as somewhere affected by climate change. 

This approach has to be challenged and it will require a real shift in the environmental movement. We really need to put frontline communities in the foreground, which includes rural-based First Nation communities, as well as the long-standing struggles by communities of colour and the working class in our cities. As climate change gets worse, it will tend to be these same communities that are the most vulnerable, as they are often on the most easily flooded low-lying land, as we saw with Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, with Hurricane Sandy in New York City, and most recently with Hurricane Harvey in Houston. It was working class neighbourhoods and communities of colour that were most devastated by these so-called natural disasters. 

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The book also explores the idea of ‘climate apartheid’, evidencing the claim that certain communities are more vulnerable to climate change than others. Is addressing inequality – decarbonising through decolonising – the most effective way to mobilise a climate movement? 

Definitely. One of the struggles for climate activists over the past few decades has been that climate change can seem to be remote: temporally remote – it’s happening in the future, or geographically remote – it’s happening in another place. This is primarily because devastating storms, droughts, and heat waves have, above all, affected former colonised countries in tropical latitudes, not Western countries. But all of this is obviously changing as the impacts of climate change become stronger. 

To appeal to people in the most immediate fashion we need to foreground issues of inequality as we struggle to adapt and mitigate. Within cities in the rich world, such as the UK or US, one of the most devastating impacts of climate change is the Heat Island Effect – which is produced when concrete absorbs heat and makes the city much hotter than the surrounding countryside. 

Cities, though, are not homogenous, they're sites of extreme class and race inequality. When the Heat Island Effect is triggered, it's almost always the most marginalised communities that are affected. You can see this in the higher mortality rates of communities that cannot afford quality air conditioning and lack public facilities. So this is one way that ‘climate apartheid’ can play out, even in rich countries. 

The tragedy is that a disaster does not end when the strong winds and torrential rains die down – a natural disaster can ramify the longstanding results of inequality. The recovery efforts can even make the situation worse for those communities, as emergency management bodies offer loan programmes that load vulnerable communities with increasing levels of debts, or completely ignore them. 

Communities that are economically and socially marginalised can be even further marginalised by the recovery and restoration efforts. You can see this over and over again, from the disaster capitalism after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, to the thousands of deaths in Puerto Rico during and after Hurricane Maria, to Latinx and African American  populations in Houston still living in flood- gutted houses a year after Hurricane Harvey.  

Then there is the Global South, where the question of ‘climate apartheid’ is far more evident. Climate change is creating a ‘tropics of chaos’ and this is in a part of the world that has barely any carbon emissions – yet they are the predominant victims of climate chaos. This is where you see ‘climate apartheid’ most clearly. 

Worsening all of this is the reaction of wealthy countries who engage in anti-immigrant hysteria. Half a century ago Hannah Arendt explored how the colonialism of European countries can lead to fascist dictatorships in the colonial heartland. Of course she was referring to German colonialism in Africa in the 1920s and 1930s, and how that impacted on the rise of the Nazi Party. But I think we are also seeing similar things with the recent anti-immigrant hysteria in the European Union in response to Syrian immigrants, which has catalysed a major shift rightward across the EU.

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To follow on from the question of inequality, you share research that suggests ‘equal ownership of resources’ is the best protection against disasters. While we’re primarily reacting to the impacts of climate change through post disaster initiatives, what is the role of preparedness and what does it look like? 

The ability of societies to resist disasters has been shown by researchers to be a function of the strength of social networks – the capacity of people to help one another. When there is a complex and large social phenomenon, like a city, state authorities can only do so much to help people in the event of a crisis, and by far the most effective forms of reaction are community mobilisation and mutual aid. And so the strength of social networks have a direct impact on the capacity of mutual aid, and when you have an unequal society, segmented by racial, gender and class inequalities, it's much harder for this society to weather any disasters. 

In Extreme Cities I looked at how Occupy Sandy activists tried to support communities in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. They went to poor neighbourhoods and they used an activist framework of mutual aid. There was wide acknowledgement in New York and the US more broadly that Occupy Sandy succeeded where official relief organisations like FEMA and the Red Cross failed. As a result, authorities have recognised that we need to build the strength of social networks in order to make communities more resilient to climate change. But in the case of the US, the great irony is that decades of neoliberalism and austerity have frayed social connections, so while disaster relief authorities are trying to encourage these networks, broader economic trends are doing exactly the opposite. 

You also look at redesigning cities. What could cities do to be more prepared for future events? 

The historical tendency has been to try to deal with natural disasters, such as flooding, by increasing infrastructure, particularly infrastructures that armour the city – dikes, seawalls, and the like. New Orleans is a perfect example of this approach. The problem is that such efforts are based on an understanding of nature as the enemy. This leads to the construction of higher and higher barriers around cities, which end up heightening the  threat of eventual inundation. New Orleans is now like an inverted bowl, with very high levees around the Mississippi and other waterways, which are intended to drain the city, but most of the city is below sea level. So the waterways and levels are actually pushing the water higher. This is ultimately a failed approach and designers, in particular landscape designers, are looking to take natural ecosystems and use them as flood absorbance devices. So, for example, rather than constructing more houses and concrete, parks should be built that serve a dual function: public amenities during normal times, and giant sponges that can absorb waters during moments of flooding. 

This is the ‘living with water’ approach? 

Yes. I didn’t invent the approach, it’s been developed by the Dutch as they’ve tried to cope with their own threats. It requires a big change in mindset, as historically the Dutch defended themselves from the oncoming ocean, but are now finding they are having to deal with convergent threats as climate change increases potential storm surges from the North Sea and flooding on rivers like the Rhine. It’s a kind of double-whammy for them. Increased rainfall produced by climate change swells rivers that go through the Netherlands back to the sea, meaning you can not just place a hard barrier against the ocean, you also need to drain water from the hinterlands and the rivers that flow through them. So you need to come up with other solutions that absorb floods in the existing landscape. 

The Dutch have experimented with interesting solutions, but they involve setting aside land that is already in use, and this flies in the face of existing social arrangements. Essentially they’ve found that they need to buy out farmers and flood their land. Farming families, many of whom have lived on the land for centuries, are not happy about this. Similar conflicts have developed in post-Katrina New  Orleans, where efforts to flood-proof the city essentially involved displacing people from historically Black portions of the city, while leaving intact wealthier white neighbourhoods. 

Making all this worse is the need to absorb surplus capital, especially in this time where the elites – the 1% – are using real estate in cities as speculative investments. This galloping urbanisation is taking places in flood zones in Miami, New York, and many other places around the world. Well then, what seems like a rational reaction to these threats? We’ll have to push back against development in cities – a titanic fight it’s unclear we’re going to win.

Ashley Dawson, illustration by Ioana Harasim

You also call the ‘jargon of resilience’ into question. How is it exploited and can it actually be useful? 

In the book I explore the history of resilience and its origins in biology. It was initially an effort to think about ecosystems as not static, contrary to sustainability systems, which imagined that if there was a disruption to the ecosystem, it would be ideal to return it to its previous condition. In the 1970s biologists started to understand that ecosystems are in constant flux and are made up of many intersecting subsystems. The ecosystems that are best prepared to survive disruptions have individual units that articulate with one another, which means if one section is damaged, other areas will survive. 

But increasingly the strength and flexibility resilience systems have been picked up across the political spectrum and misapplied. It’s become very popular in thinking on Wall Street to think about how to prevent economic crashes. It’s also become central to military jargon these days and, not surprisingly, it’s also very popular in disaster planning. My critique of this is based on the fact that resilience is often foisted onto individuals and isolated communities who experience crises. It becomes their job to make themselves strong enough to weather climate chaos, with little help from the state or the better off members of society. So it very much dovetails with neoliberalism and the social isolation it creates. Margaret Thatcher very famously said, ‘there is no such thing as society’, and the resilience perspective can dovetail with this ideology by blaming individuals and communities for not doing enough. It tends, in other words, to ignore systemic inequality. 

I also track the resilience narrative through a Rockefeller Foundation project called Rebuild by Design. The project had some very interesting proposals for New York City after Hurricane Sandy, the best of which involved ‘living with water’ approaches. They were about using ecosystems where nature and city are not in opposition to one another. But the broader understanding of resilience is problematic, and in the book I show how the Rockefeller Foundation uses the idea that cities should be more resilient without explaining what material support will be offered to support this process. 

Later in the book you explore ‘disaster communism’, described as ‘the communal solidarities forged in the teeth of calamity.’ Could you explain this approach?  

In addition to what I was finding on the ground with Occupy Sandy activists, one of the main inspirations was Rebecca Solnit’s Paradise Built in Hell. The book is a good set of theoretical arguments, as well as a series of case studies of the moments when disasters, such as the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, lead to a breakdown of established social hierarchies and the state ceases to function. During these moments, people re-engage in mutual aid and you find a lot more social solidarity. Such moments of disaster can have a levelling effect, and to use the terms we’ve been criticising, they can produce quite a lot of resilience. 

Another way we could think about this is by drawing on Autonomy theory, which came out of Italy in the 1970s with an emphasis on working-class agency. It’s about how people can function outside of established institutions, whether it’s the state or trade unions - and how they can rely on self-help. So disaster communism can be seen as an example of applied Autonomy. 

In my book I explore how disaster communism can be really powerful in both the initial stages and the aftermath of a disaster, as people turn to one another in the absence of established authority. But as communities move on from bare survival to reconstruction efforts, the established hierarchies tend to reassert themselves unless there are very strong organisational forms, either born out of the disaster or reanimated, to challenge those with more resources as well as the forms of state power that entrench such inequalities. 

This reassertion of authority is what happened in Red Hook, Brooklyn, after Hurricane Sandy. Occupy Sandy’s efforts to work with people living in Red Hook social housing – the largest residential development in the borough – really got stymied by the local Democratic Party machine. Their representatives swooped in and worked with real estate developers and affluent people. Their rhetoric about Occupy Sandy activists as anarchists and hooligans scared people into not working anymore with activists. I think this example shows that mutual aid is not enough, that there has to be a reckoning with and democratisation of the State – in both its local form or at a more abstract level. So we need a disaster communist theory about how an upsurge in mutual aid can be made more durable.

Ashley Dawson is Professor of English at the Graduate Center/CUNY and the College of Staten Island. He is the author of two recent books on topics relating to the environmental humanities, including Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change (Verso, 2017). @a_j_dawson

Jonny Gordon-Farleigh is the editor of STIR Magazine, and the founding director of Stir to Action and Selgars Mill. @stirtoaction

STIR Magazine Issue 23

What's Happening at Stir to Action

New Economy Workout

7.30pm - 8.30pm, 16 June 2020

It can be hard to stay active during this pandemic with the restrictions on activity, limited access to facilities and equipment, and many other pressing demands for our time, but we all know about the benefits.

In this evening class, Bristol Co-operative Gym's Guy Lochhead will lead us through an efficient and enjoyable workout you can do at home to relieve common aches and pains, reduce stress and build strength, using no equipment and minimal space. 

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