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The Commune of Detroit 

Photo Source Brian Kurtz | CC BY 2.0

It’s a little over 600 miles (a thousand kilometers) from New York City to Detroit. By airplane one can travel from one to the other in under 90 minutes. By land, however, the million meters take a bit longer to traverse (especially when traveling with small children, or older people, and your cat – not to mention all those books you couldn’t bring yourself to abandon to the floodwaters). And as hurricanes, floods, and other effects of capitalogenic global warming produce more and more climate evacuees (many of whom will mutate into climate refugees), the odds are high that many will end up migrating to Detroit in the coming decades. Why?

First, Detroit possesses substantial absorption capacities. Having seen its population decline by over a million people in recent decades (from its 1950 peak of nearly 2 million people to its current population of under 700,000), the infrastructural capacity (housing, power, water, etc.) to absorb many hundreds of thousands remains. Although many homes are dilapidated, and many lots are empty, these could be rebuilt and connected to pre-existing water lines and electricity grids relatively easily.

And while the same can be said, to some degree, of other US cities, in addition to Detroit’s absorption capacities, what makes Detroit a likely haven for those escaping the storms of global warming in the coming decades is that it is relatively climate crisis free. Beyond its museums, cultural institutions, unique architecture, and rich history (which make it an attractive location in its own right), among places in the US, Michigan is the least prone to hurricanes, floods, drought, tornadoes, and other socio-meteorological disasters. These two reasons, absorption capacity and attractive location, make Detroit a likely destination for future climate refugees.

Now, predictions are always problematic. No one knows what the future holds. A nuclear disaster, or mutant toxic algae blooms rolling out of Lake Huron, could render the area uninhabitable. Far more probable, however, is that the heating planet, growing less and less hospitable by the year, will continue to generate stronger and stronger hurricanes (e.g., the as of yet only conjectured category 6). And, as these increase in severity, the likelihood is high that one, or several, of these mega-storms will strike the Eastern US, creating millions of climate refugees overnight. Indeed, if Hurricane Florence could cause 1.5 million evacuees by threatening the Carolinas, imagine how many more would be generated by a similarly-sized storm sacking New York? And how many of these evacuees would, with their homes destroyed, become climate refugees? To be sure, it is not at all unlikely that evacuees from Boston to New York, and from Baltimore to Miami, whose homes will be permanently submerged, will be wandering the country’s interior in the coming years. And what will happen to these people? Where will they (that is, where will you, your family, your neighbors) end up? In refugee camps?

As Mike Davis informs us in Planet of Slums, some of the world’s largest slums developed out of refugee camps, or by displaced people settling along the peripheries of cities. And these slums are only growing. While most of the world’s people now inhabit urban areas, according to the 2016 UN World Cities Report around a quarter of the globe’s urban population presently reside in slums. And, if present trends continue, half of the planet’s urban dwellers will be living in slums by 2050. As global warming continues to intensify, people escaping floods and other extreme weather events (along with their consequences: drought, epidemics, ethnic strife and armed conflict, and other effects of capitalogenic climate change) will swell the slum population further – and not just in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. These will proliferate in Europe and the US, too. So… what to do? In addition to taking steps to curb, or better yet reverse, global warming (through the curtailment of production, the planting of trees, and other interventions), efforts should be taken to fortify infrastructure against the coming stressors. But since little is being done to ameliorate the coming storms and their consequences, and because many US cities will be submerged in the coming years by rising sea levels, or dried out by drought, or leveled by tornadoes and hurricanes, people might consider relocating preemptively.

While acknowledging that it’s far easier said than done, in consideration of the above, concerned people from across the US might consider moving to Detroit, Michigan – not to live quietly and complacently in the Motor City, however. In addition to joining local activists and organizations, such as the James and Grace Lee Boggs Center, the People’s Water Board Coalition, the Detroit Food Policy Council, the Michigan Poor People’s Campaign, and other organizations engaged in transforming the city into a more livable place, activists could also join forces with local organizations to reclaim the local government, and other entities. And while no one can know how, or into what, the various forces at play would develop, one can look to examples from Detroit history and elsewhere for ideas of what to avoid and what to pursue. In addition to local examples of reimagining and democratizing public space, such as The Belt, and Souladarity’s clean energy projects, The Paris Commune of 1871 provides ideas (severely taxing vacant apartments and shops, for instance, to bring down rents), as does Barcelona in 1936 (e.g., socializing the phone company and other public utilities). More recently, Barcelona today, under the mayorship of Ada Colau, provides further ideas. And we mustn’t neglect to consider the example of the stateless, anarcho-feminist municipalism practiced in Rojava, the autonomous region in Kurdish Northern Syria.

As far as ideas go, Detroit (along with the enclaves of Hamtramck, Highland Park, and other areas) could even develop into a federation of autonomous colleges, each comprised of dozens of departments that, in collaboration with Wayne State and existing colleges, could tend to the needs of their respective communities. Among other schools and departments (history, philosophy, biology, mathematics, athletics, dance, etc.), each college could have a nursing school and a medical school. These could train members of the community in nursing and medicine. As part of the training they could also run and maintain clinics, providing medical care for the community – free of charge, of course.

Agriculture and horticulture departments could teach their disciplines to members of the community as well, building greenhouses and gardens and growing food for the community. Engineering departments, in collaboration with others, such as Souladarity, could tend to energy needs, developing solar, wind, and other renewables. And because all members of the community would be regarded as students, all would be entitled to free housing (in addition to food, health care, water, and other necessities) in the buildings in the colleges’ respective jurisdictions (housing developed and maintained by the architecture and design departments, among others).

Education departments could fashion curricula and set up primary and secondary schools for the children of the community. Engineering and urban design departments could develop transportation, sanitation and communications systems, among other resources necessary for a community to sustain itself. In short, society’s needs could be cared for in a radically democratic manner, beyond the market and the state, through a community college communalism. And the various campuses throughout the region could share research, trade food surpluses, compete in arts and sports competitions, etc.

Moreover, because rent would be eliminated, and social goods would be produced for use, as opposed to exchange (for genuine interest, as opposed to money), no one would have to work more than 10 hours a week in their respective departments to maintain the college/community. The rest of people’s time could be given over to leisure. Rather than being a commodity, prized for its exchange-value, education in this context would be pursued for its own sake. Outside of the coercive structures of a commodity economy (beyond the market – where everything has a price, and nothing is free – and beyond the state), community and college could interact as loci of an actually democratic society, one that could support well being, ease, and meaningful relationships and pursuits (i.e., the good life), as opposed to mere survival in an ever more polluted world.

Organized according to principles of self-governance and mutual aid, as opposed to the capitalistic dictates of mutual exploitation (and the unceasing exploitation of everything else), these could even provide assistance to other regions, spreading this community college communalism across the continent, developing in such a manner as to replace the state and capitalism altogether. Or, what’s just as likely, Jeff Bozos could buy up all of Michigan, and turn it into his own personal kingdom. He’s probably looking into it already. Don’t you think?

More articles by:

Elliot Sperber is a writer, attorney, and adjunct professor. He lives in New York City and can be reached at and on twitter @elliot_sperber

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