Notes From the Vomitorium
Economists use “digestion” to illustrate the difficulty of absorbing excess housing stock from the housing boom and bust. Years of slack, domestic growth are attributed to the economic alimentary canal stacked to Rabelaisian proportions with the appetites of ordinary citizens to own homes. No money down. No one saw it coming.
Digestion is the word of the day, now, in Florida’s most populous and politically influential county: Miami-Dade. Here, county bureaucrats are locked in “negotiations” with the US EPA, that determined gross violations of sewage treatment requirements for millions of residents and visitors. Through 1994 federal litigation by environmental groups, and once again nearly twenty years later, local government officials finally acknowledge that billions of taxpayer dollars are instantly required to safely digest sewage flowing from our toilets, sinks, dishwashers, top and front end washing machines, from our golf courses, street drains and collectors.
At the same time, Miami tops the list as the highest foreclosure rate in the nation. According to a recent report by RealtyTrac, “The greater Miami area posted the highest foreclosure activity of any large city in the nation in the first quarter, with one in every 79 residences receiving some type of foreclosure filing.”
The half-filled, filthy, abandoned swimming pool in a West Kendall foreclosure is another metaphor: reflecting the stagnant thinking of state government, the practice of elected officials to always shift the costs of growth to the next generation of taxpayers, and — yes– of EPA whose top bureaucrats are only as dedicated to resisting the states as the political appointees they serve.
Despite Miami’s status as number one in foreclosures, local elected officials are pounding the desk bell for more roads, more construction, more development, more subsidies for private corporations (ie. sports stadiums for billionaire owners), more museums, more monuments to vanity in the name of civic pride.
It made the bile catch in my gullet a quarter century ago, the first time I heard the most powerful man in the Florida Keys, Ervin Higgs — the property appraiser — explain to a chamber of commerce audience: “We need more construction and development to fund infrastructure and all the services government provides.” Those of us who planted our flag on the principle that the first priority is to protect the environment on which the economy depends were called “Chicken Little’s” and worse. Never doubt the ingenuity of those who depend on public subsidies for private profit to innovate ways to distort messages; like GMO foods are good for you, or, “they do no harm” and you can’t prove otherwise.
As Dr. Harold Wanless, chair of the University of Miami Department of Geological Science, detailed in a recent presentation on climate change and sea level rise at the annual meeting of Friends of the Everglades, impacts of climate change will up-end all assumptions of economic growth within the next two or three mortgage cycles (20 year mortgages).
The data on emerging climate change impacts is consistently on the high end of predictive paths.
Governmental policies regarding climate change in South Florida exhibit a kind of stutter. Blue ribbon panels are meeting. They have distinguished names, distinguished panelists, and issue reports. Planners and engineers know that legal thresholds require more than words to be effective. The time for action is now. But appropriations and subsidies are still pointed the other way: the race to permit more roads into low-lying farmland (836 Highway extension to Homestead, to reach land purchases made at the top of the market by prominent campaign contributors), more sprawl to the edges of the Everglades (rescuing wealthy landowners who have been land-banking farmland, while failing to pay interest on their loans), more rock mines (the first stage of zoning toward suburban tract housing) and “sacrifice zones” for the greater economic good (suing environmentalists who stand in their way), more beach renourishment projects or the tourists will not come.
We can’t just keep pumping sand on beaches, to watch it all wash away in the next storm. But we do. There is no miracle to come. Dr. Wanless, 72, believes now is the time to plan evacuation from coastal areas: seed banks, museums, cultural treasures, governmental offices and libraries. The list goes on and, yes, it is hard to digest. It is hard to imagine a president being elected on the platform of relocating the Smithsonian.
But temperature rise is already a “runaway train”. South Beach floods now on ordinary high tides. No longer, just the spring tides.
Elsewhere, perhaps droughts — in the American mid-west and in India — will abate, but climate change is already eating away at economic stability like moths on a wool blanket. Here is how that works.
Within the environmental movement, the thought has been expressed that this severe constipation of public policies and unmovable elected officials (like US Senator Marco Rubio, who still denies the man-made origins of climate change) is a transient phenomenon that will pass. The thinking goes, once Gov. Rick Scott is ousted from the executive office, if we just wait long enough, that new and right-thinking people will address what ails us.
That is not how it works. Financial and business interests related to construction and growth in Florida may act stupid when it comes to denying global warming, but they are not dumb. Far from it. Most are very bright within their fiduciary responsibility to shareholders and owners. Since the early days of the nation’s environmental movement, the Growth Machine succeeded in backing their opponents into tighter and tighter boxes, shrink wrapped with campaign contributions.
If climate change is coming, they reason: now is the time to rezone and to build as much, as fast as possible. That is exactly what is happening in Florida.
Once I believed an economic calamity, such as loosened by the housing crash, would be a laxative to cleanse our backed up economic and political ills. We would be fit as fiddles, our large (Wall Street) and small (Main Street) intestines purged.
The last two sessions of the Florida legislature have been a remarkable and efficient roll-back of half a century of environmental regulation and growth management. The carnage is unbelievable.
This phenomenon — of business interests reacting to imminent climate change, all the while denying — explains the extreme, right-ward tilt of legislatures like Florida. They throw off the “yoke of regulations”, protect banks by refloating capital ratios on zero percent money, and encourage those components of the Growth Machine that feed the supply chain of legislators: ensuring that the small cogs of local decisions on wetlands permitting and destruction, to the bigger cogs of land use lawyers and lobbyists, to the bankers feeding trillions in derivatives into the illusion of a stable, manageable system; all will trickle down benefits to society. The Great Destroyers weren’t set back by the economic crisis: they exploited it in anticipation of even greater threats to come on the rising tides.
Miami, the Magic City, is like a bulimic who furtively maintains appearances by throwing up in secret on mid-course trips to the stalls, crowing back at the table how our chefs are the best in the world.
Alan Farago is president of Friends of the Everglades.