The Flood Next Time

I’ve been meaning to take a look at Jacobin, and their publication of Alyssa Battistoni’s The Flood Next Time gave me a good excuse.

Basically, it’s a caution — in this case against ever expecting an extreme event, even one as extreme as “Superstorm Sandy,” to act as a real wake up call.  And the author has done her homework.  For example, here’s a nice part of the setup:

But do disasters act as turning points, or wake-up calls, or teachable moments? Do those oft-discussed silver linings really materialize? It seems easy to conjure examples in the affirmative. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire led to stricter factory safety standards, the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 to the Mississippi River levee system. But those are the exception, not the rule. The BP spill was supposed to wake us up to the costs of our reliance on fossil fuels — as were the Exxon Valdez spill and the 1970s oil shocks. Aurora followed Virginia Tech and Virginia Tech followed Columbine, and gun control laws remain unchanged. When disasters throw a kink into frenzied everyday life, we talk about the things we’re now forced to talk about — but what happens to all those conversations when urgency diminishes and regular life returns?

Nor is this essay just an exercise in pessimism.   There’s a real potential in catastrophic events, and the point is immediately granted:

Crises and disasters are of particular interest to politics that seek to transform embedded institutions and practices, whether radical or reformist. They bring underlying processes and patterns to the surface and shake the foundations of the status quo, offering a view of how things might be reconstructed differently — and the chance to do so. . . .

The nature of [the] change, however, depends on who wakes up and what they see. Naomi Klein’s dark picture of “disaster capitalism” depicts rapacious investors waiting in the wings, ready to seize public assets while communities are distracted by disaster’s aftermath. Crises can provide grounds on which emergency action and powers are justified and frequently entrenched, as we well know.

Yet while disasters are nearly always most damaging to those who have little political power, they also can also be a force for more inclusive, democratic models of decision-making. They create breaks that can allow alternative forms of social and political organization to emerge. They exacerbate internal tensions that can spur political unrest and force authorities to confront public questioning. They can result in new rights claims as citizens demand that their governments meet their needs, and they can build solidarity as communities come together purposefully in their wake. They can even spur transformations in political thought: the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 is often described as a “birthday of the modern age,” causing Enlightenment thinkers to question God’s role in human affairs. But can they compel new urgencies around issues usually consigned to the back burner, and problems that develop on time scales not aligned with the campaign cycle?

The answer may be, “don’t hold your breath.”

While disaster may expose underlying mechanisms, it doesn’t untangle them on its own. The linkages connecting not just Katrina and the levees and the Lower Ninth, or the BP spill and the wetlands and the oil industry, but tying all of them together, are neither immediately obvious nor easily explained. So while New Orleans’s levees were repaired and upgraded, the levees’ role in making the city more vulnerable went largely unexamined; rather, other communities clamored for levees of their own, wanting to build an ever-higher wall against the sea. The focus on the federal government’s failure to adequately prepare for and respond to Katrina, while justified, often came at the expense of examining local patterns of development within the context of regional geography. After BP, offshore drilling regulations and disaster response procedures were subjected to a cursory process of technical review and recommendation, but stricter regulations were never really considered, to say nothing of the state’s cozy relationship with the oil industry — not least because most people had no interest in reconsidering it. Indeed, the temporary moratorium on drilling in the Gulf sparked protests far larger than those aimed against the industry.

This is a long piece, and I won’t go on cherry picking paragraphs.  It’s worth a read, though at the end of the day, it’s a lost opportunity as well as useful caution. For while some people have perhaps put too much faith in natural catastrophes as awakening events, most all the climate organizers I know never expected even a major storm to be more than an opportunity.

Battistoni is too sophisticated not to grant this point, but still, there’s something in her that wants to hold it back.  It’s irritating to see the Keystone XL protests referred to in the past tense, and she should have known better than to do so.  Also, and this is a key point that she has entirely missed, Sandy did indeed mark a political singularity, for it was was, if not the end of denialism, at least the end of the time in which it could plausibly claim legitimacy.  But all she says about denialism is the rather opaque (and perhaps even cheap) comment that “Deniers aren’t really the problem, and treating climate change as an issue of scientific knowledge rather than a political one has allowed the Left to claim it without thinking it through.”

Still, The Flood Next Time is worth a read.  Caution is useful, particularly when it’s as thoughtful as this, and particularly when we’re feeling full of beans.  As, just after last weekend’s Keystone rallies, a lot of us surely are.

– Tom Athanasiou