Increasingly, activists who work on climate change frame their movement around the idea of environmental justice, an interweaving of social, racial and economic justice with the fight to mitigate the effects of climate change and seek a just transition from the fossil fuel economy.
For Ashley Dawson, a professor of English at the City University of New York, the key sites of this struggle are the world’s cities: where radical social movements and innovative urban planning rise up in places at the highest risk of environmental disaster. He tells this story in his new book Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change.
He will be discussing the book at an upcoming Town Hall event on Sunday, May 6th, but in the meantime we arranged a conversation between Ashley and Town Hall correspondent Jessica Ramirez. Jessica is an organizer working with Puget Sound Sage, a cross-sector organization based in Seattle that works on equitable policy solutions for our region.
She and Ashley spoke about Extreme Cities, their common experiences witnessing the effects of climate change firsthand, and what urban resiliency really means in an era of rising waters.
Jessica Ramirez: Thank you Ashley for talking with me today. Where are you right now?
Ashley Dawson: In Jackson Heights in Queens, a neighborhood in New York City.
JR: So you are from the very urban center of the urban centers.
AD: That’s where I live now. I’m originally from Cape Town, South Africa, but I’ve been a New Yorker for several decades. So I think I get to claim this beast as my own at this point.
JR: Well I really wanted to get to know you a little bit more and touch on the book through ways of your life experience. I grew up in Corpus Christi, Texas, which is on the Gulf of Mexico, born and raised there. My family continues to live there. I’ve lived in Seattle for the last 15 years and going home about once a year for the last 15 years I’ve seen and witnessed the radical change that the coastline has undergone over the last decade or more. We had a really intense hurricane come through there last year. The year before that, around the holidays, we had a water shortage because of a chemical that was leaked into our water system that left the whole city without water for over a week. People were having to drink bottled water. I’ve really seen the change of the coastline with the new refineries popping up all the time.
When I was younger I remember looking at them and thinking how pretty they were because in the evening they look like big towers with Christmas lights. So I was always really fascinated by them and I just thought “oh the twinkling lights across the bay,” and as I’ve gotten older and with the work that I do at Puget Sound Sage and the kind of issues that we touch on around environmental justice and environmental racism and the way that effects low income communities and communities of color, I’ve really had an incredibly different relationship with my hometown and I’m starting to look at it in a much different way: in which ways can I help insert kind of this popular education on climate change within my family with family, friends with neighbors when I’m home. And I’m curious for you growing up in Cape Town, how have you seen where you’re from change over the last several years?
AD: That’s a great question. I have not lived in Cape Town for many years. As you can tell from my accent, I spent my teenage years in the United States. My family left South Africa in the 1970s because of apartheid. But Cape Town has been in the news a lot recently because of the drought. I mean there’s a very severe drought affecting all of southern Africa and in fact there are bad droughts right now in many other parts of the world, but since much of Sub-Saharan Africa really relies on rain fed agriculture, the drought in southern Africa is particularly devastating for people and farmers. In South Africa it really threatens to undermine the gains that have been made since the end of apartheid. There’s been a real struggle for the black majority in South Africa to get access to the land that was taken away from them by white settlers—my own ancestors included. The ANC I think has not done enough to help that land redistribution and the farmers who have gotten access to land still are really, really struggling and the impact of the drought has made things a lot worse.
That hasn’t made the news so much as the water crisis in Cape Town. Where the city is about to essentially run its main reservoirs dry and it’s already rationing water, so what that means is that many of the more affluent people living in the city, which because of the history of apartheid means the predominantly white populations of the city, are struggling with lack of access to drinking water, which the majority of people in South Africa have coped with for a long time and it’s generated a lot of fears about the viability of the city going forward and of course this is one crisis among many around the world and I’d be happy to talk about New York City and some of the experiences I had been living in New York City in recent years that help to catalyze the book and those have to do not so much with drought but with sea level rise and the impact of hurricanes. So they’re connected in a lot of ways to what you’re just described experiencing in the south in Texas, Jessica,
JR: Thanks Ashley. I read through your book and you do have a significant amount talking about Hurricane Sandy, so I imagine living in New York City that had an impact on you. Can you tell us more about the connection of what drew you to this book and your experience with Hurricane Sandy?
AD: Sure. Well, as you could tell from the comments I just made about South Africa and given my background and the work I’ve done in recent years with environmental justice organizations, I think it’s absolutely crucial to think about cities and the impact of climate change driven natural disasters on cities and urban populations in a kind of variegated way. You can’t think of cities as homogenous. Even though a lot of statistics produced about cities tend to treat cities as unified units. There are places that are very radically segregated and segmented by histories of racism and economic inequality and exploitation, and when you have some kind of a climate-change-driven disaster like a hurricane, it impacts communities that are uneven and the impact is consequently very uneven and often efforts to help people cope in the aftermath and help them rebuild reflect those histories of racism and economic inequality. And I very much saw that with Hurricane Sandy.
The neighborhood I live in is predominantly immigrant and predominantly people of color, but it was pretty much spared a lot of the wrath of the hurricane. However other neighborhoods in Queens, like the Rockaways, which are on an island—kind of barrier island—off the coast of New York City was very, very hard hit. And that community has a disproportionate amount of the public housing in our borough of New York. Basically under the master builder of the Twentieth Century, Robert Moses, a lot of working class people of color communities for essentially just moved as far away from the center of the city as possible to these barrier islands. And when Sandy came, it knocked out power for the island and flooded a lot of parts of the Rockaways so that people living in the projects didn’t have running water above the fifth floor. They often didn’t have functioning elevators and they didn’t have functioning boilers, so their heat was not working.
This kind of experience is reproduced in many vulnerable communities around New York City so that although the hurricane devastated Wall Street and the area around Wall Street and famously that bottom quarter of Manhattan lost power was plunged into darkness. The really dramatic impact was on people who were already struggling economically before the storm hit. And we already know about those kinds of uneven impacts of climate change from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. But those dynamics were working themselves through in cities around the globe today and not always in quite as visible ways as in Hurricane Katrina with all of its tragic images of people struggling on rooftops and trying to escape the floods. So my book really tries to talk about urbanization and climate change as a global crisis and a crisis of global urban inequality,
JR: Yeah. There’s definitely a lot there. Urban Centers, for me, when I think about climate change, for a really long time I always thought about climate change as being kind of over there in a corner somewhere.
Actually in my mind I just went straight to California where there’s no water and I just thought, you know, this is an issue for them, not something that I don’t need to care about, but I just thought of it as being… that there is a bigger gap between me and climate change. But then about three years ago I got involved with the farm worker campaign up in the Skagit valley, about an hour north from here, and really started to hear about what struggles are for farm workers who pick in the fields and the kinds of pesticides that they’re working with and what those pesticides are for are to grow foods in radically difficult climates and that is the food that we eat and these are the foods that they pick. This is the poison that gets seeped into their hands, that they bring home to their families, the areas and the environment that their children grow up in.
And this is also making me remember about the last handful of years in Seattle, wildfires in Eastern Washington where the smoke just billows beyond the mountain pass and into Western Washington and how everyone complains about the smoke and can see what’s happening, but the connection of why that is happening is still hard for some people to make and so thinking about urban centers as the center of where climate change is existing, and then even rural areas are not safe to be either. Where is the medium—what are the ways in which we mitigate climate change and how do you see people doing that? How are some of the most radical ways that you see folks working on climate issues from the urban center?
AD: Yeah, that’s a great question. I want to, before getting into radical adaptation and mitigation, I want to just backtrack to what you said because I think it’s really important about the ways in which people deal with toxicity and how hard that is to pin down because getting exposed to pesticides and potentially—years down the road—developing some kind of cancer is very different from getting exposed to a hurricane or a heat wave. It’s a form of attritional disaster unfolds over an extended time span and consequently is often kind of invisible to science. And corporations are very quick to exploit that and to say “well, you know, you can’t prove any kind of connection between exposure to a certain toxin and an impact many years down the road.”
The critic Rob Nixon has talked about this as a form of slow violence. He also talks about, for instance, Gulf War syndrome, that is the result of soldiers sent to Iraq during the US invasion—either the most recent one or the one in the 1990s—getting exposed to depleted uranium which they were using to blow up tanks and other things and becoming sick after many years. So I think a lot of this has to do with understanding different forms of time and temporality and how we can make connections between different forms of violence and the unfolding of injustice on different temporal scales. And that’s really important to do I think because as you say, often the way that climate change is framed is as something that’s going to happen in some remote future, you know, unless we do, x, y, and z one day we’re going to have to deal with something that’s going to impact us. So I think it’s really important to emphasize that climate change is happening in the present. It’s likely to become much more extreme than the future, but it’s already happening and it’s happening in all sorts of different ways.
So just to give you a kind of concrete example of this, to think about the ways in which existing urban infrastructures are impacted by climate change as the heat island effect in cities means that there’s increasing heat stress on pipes, on transportation systems, on electric grids that can often cause catastrophic and sudden breakdowns, but that are a long time in the making. So to think about those kinds of things and then to think about the ways in which people are exposed to these forms of climate change and how there’s a kind of attritional violence to climate change so that people gradually get worn down and we need to be aware of that as well as to think about so-called natural disasters like hurricanes for example. So all of that is really important in thinking about how we engage in adaptation and mitigation because it means we have to reframe how we conceive of disasters and preparation for disasters. Right now, particularly in the United States, a lot of work around disasters has to do with sending in resources to communities that are affected by disasters. Treating those communities as homogenous as I was saying previously…
JR: Puerto Rico, right?
AD: Yeah, exactly. And FEMA doesn’t think about the inequalities in communities and the need to dispense aid in recognition of these kinds of histories of inequality which we’ve been talking about. And so one has to be aware of those kinds of histories and impacts as one thinks about adaptation and mitigation. So to give you a concrete example of this, a couple of examples that I look at it in the book, one has to do with a very ambitious project that was commissioned by the Rockefeller Foundation and which the Federal Housing and Urban Development Department got involved in which was trying to rethink design and architecture in order to deal with sea level rise and climate change in New York City. And so it proposed things like sea walls to protect downtown Manhattan or to protect an area of the southern Bronx where there’s a huge food and produce market that supplies food for about 20 million people in the New York metropolitan region.
So there was this idea of creating sea walls to protect these areas. But because of the efforts of community groups who had been excluded by previous redevelopment initiatives and particularly the redevelopment of downtown, for example, after 9/11—predominantly working class communities like Chinatown and the lower east side—really didn’t get very much of the aid after 9/11. Most of it went to affluent communities living down around Wall Street. So there was a real push to have community involvement in the rebuilding efforts after hurricane Sandy in the plans for future development. And so the plan for sea walls was to make them wide enough that they could have community amenities like parkland for example, or access to the waterfront and in the more radical cases that some of the construction would be done by local folks who had good unionized jobs. So there was something quite progressive about that.
But plants that were drafted by community organizations took some of those efforts much further. So there are other examples. For instance, the environmental justice organization, WE ACT which is based in Harlem, drafted a plan: a kind of climate action manual for northern Manhattan, which is predominantly people of African descent and people originally from Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, Latinx folks. And so there was a effort to really think about community development to cope with histories of police targeting and mass incarceration of these communities and to do things like build community owned solar powered micro grids that would be resilient in the case of some kind of a natural disaster like Hurricane Sandy, but which would also generate income for communities and jobs for communities and that’s just one example of something that would be both mitigating since it would cut down on carbon emissions, but it would also be a form of adaptation since it could increase resilience and it would also fight against gentrification and structural divestment in communities like Harlem over many, many decades.
JR: Puget Sound Sage for the last three years, has been a member of a state wide coalition for communities of color working on climate at a statewide level (Front and Centered), forming and shaping the policy for an initiative that folks are collecting signatures to put on the ballot in November, initiative 1631, which is a fee on pollution, wanting to reduce pollution by investing in clean air, clean energy, healthy communities, and more specifically it takes workers out of the fossil fuel economy and brings them into job training programs to work in clean energy. It helps try to mitigate the tribal nations who are losing land along the coastline every single day and really trying to stop that in its place. And really holding the people who are creating a lot of this pollution accountable for what it is that communities of color and low income workers are really facing on a day to day.
The Alliance for jobs and clean energy is this amazingly robust—over a hundred different organizations from labor, environmental organizations, and communities of color—who come together for three years to shape this initiative. And I feel very lucky to live in Washington state where we have people who are really thinking beyond the most… you know, when we talk about sea walls, you could build a sea wall all day long and it could get as high as it needs to, but is that the answer? And so thinking really long term about how do we actually stop this in its place.
And also at Sage, we have another program where we’re trying to build out a climate resiliency hub in south Seattle so that should there be a day where we need to be “off the grid”, can that infrastructure exists in a place where communities of Color and immigrant and refugee folks, low income folks, houseless, folks can all be at and still thrive in and it can that be the place where people can restructure and center themselves and ground themselves again on what we need to do next. I’m curious, through your studies, can you tell me where you’ve seen the most long term work be put in place? As you were talking about WE ACT and the climate action manual, I know that people are in a lot of places all the time and this is just really ringing to me how much we need to be more coordinated in our efforts around long-term strategy on climate. So I’d love to hear from you where you see other long term strategies existing in the urban centers.
AD: That’s such an important question. A lot of what you described Jessica early resonates with some of the things that I encountered as I was doing research for the book. For instance, that climate resiliency hub that you talked about. Part of the WE ACT climate action manual is a call for social centers. The idea is to have spaces which people can escape to when there is some kind of natural disaster or places that would have power or air conditioning if the grid goes down in the summer for instance. But even more importantly they would be places which would give access to various community organizations because I think there’s a real recognition that resiliency isn’t just about shoring up infrastructure. That it’s really about making social connections. You know, the difference between life and death, studies have shown, when a heatwave occurs in the city often has to do with knowing your neighbors and having folks check on one another.
And that I find is very much the case. In New York City after Hurricane Sandy, it was organizations like Occupy Sandy and then the Good Old Lower East Side, which is a tenants rights organization in the Lower East Side, but during Sandy it was kind of transformed into this community survival organization which really sent people door to door to check on vulnerable folks. That social connection is hugely important. So core questions about how to foster that long-term by creating spaces like a resiliency hub and by kind of multiplying those spaces across cities are a really key. It’s hard to do to be honest because particularly in a place like New York City, which is a center for global capitalism, which over the last 40 years has shifted increasingly into some financialization strategies and into accumulation through investment in high end real estate. You know, there’s a huge premium on space in the city and so public housing are really under attack and communities are under attack and I’m sure there’s similar kinds of phenomena in Seattle.
So I think it goes back to the beginning of our conversation where you’re talking about ways to think about community control of land. You know, not only protecting existing public housing. We’re pretty lucky in New York City. We have a public housing authority which has survived all the attacks on public housing in cities in the last few decades. The situation is terrible in a lot of the housing in New York City and our current governor has just been scandalously cutting funding for public housing. So there are huge fights to carry forward around these kinds of basic issues. And then in terms of struggling for social hubs or community resiliency centers, it’s a tough one. And we need to call for those and we need to push progressive politicians like our current mayor, Bill de Blasio, to create that kind of infrastructure while also pushing for some of the elements of just transition away from fossil fuels that you were describing.
We have a similar alliance to what you just talked about there in Washington. In New York, it’s called a New York Renews, and it’s a alliance of Labor—progressive labor unions—and environmental justice organizations and other social movements that are fighting to put fees on big fossil fuel polluters and to direct resources to people working in fossil fuel industries and also to communities that are environmental justice frontline communities that are particularly adversely impacted by climate change. We haven’t managed to get that through the state legislature. There was a huge mobilization on April 23rd, just a few days ago around this and we’re pushing in the state legislature, but unfortunately again, our democratic governor Cuomo, who is likely to try and become president has not been supporting these measures adequately, so there’s a lot of heavy lifting to do politically around this stuff.
JR: Well, Ashley, thank you so much for your time and as we’re talking about social organization and the need to be more connected from urban centers to rural areas and from west coast to east coast, I appreciate you taking time out to talk to me about your book and look forward to seeing you in Seattle.
AD: Thanks so much, Jessica. It’s really been a privilege to talk to you and to hear about the work that you’re doing. I really look forward to hearing more.
Ashley Dawson is the author of Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change out now from Verso Books. He spoke with Jessica Ramirez from Puget Sound Sage. Ashley’s upcoming Town Hall event will be on Sunday, May 6th at 5pm at the Rainier Arts Center in Seattle.