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Climate Change and Hurricanes

Photograph Source: Roosevelt Skerrit – CC BY-SA 3.0

Do you remember last summer’s gang-of-five? Known individually as Harvey, Irma, Jose, Katia and Maria, a strangely mellifluous invocation of the deluge (or a diluvian mantra), the climatological spawn of cyclogenesis (the spin cycle in the South Atlantic) they collectively represented the most powerful group of hurricanes in over a hundred years. They were part of a train of such events in 2017, which totaled, at the time of writing, eight Atlantic hurricanes – the-hateful-eight – an unprecedented cyclogenetic sequence. Their combined death toll is conservatively estimated at over five hundred people with property and infrastructure damage low-balled at 200 billion dollars.

Bruno Latour, the French sociologist and anthropologist writes, in Facing Gaia – Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime, 2017, “In the Anthropocene, how can the state maintain that it has a monopoly on legitimate physical violence in the face of the geo-historical violence of the climate?” These weather events now terrorize the state and as we become increasingly subject to anthropogenic phenomena – those characteristics of climate that we believe are acting out of humankind’s historic and present burning of fossil fuels –we anthropomorphize their impact. Wild fires rage, threaten and ravage; hurricanes bear down, hit and devastate. Their actions deriving, we understand from the frantic reporting of them, not from a set of climatological beginnings but devoted to the terrorizing of the human beings in their path – fire, flood and wind marked by a teleological stripe as wide as the swathe they purposefully cut through civilization. Either way, it’s all about us. We have created these vaporous monsters, these flowers of evil – their whirling florescence stunningly captured in satellite imagery – that can only survive in the hot-house of an anthropocentric world. Their evil is the evil that men do, their monstrousness mirrors ours. It is we who have turned the page of geologic epochs to the one named the Anthropocene.

The fight to reduce CO2 levels to diminish global warming remains the central field of operations in the global climate war that was enjoined some decades ago. Capitalism and its enabling political environment of neoliberalism are locked in battle with a growing army of opinion (scarcely yet reified as action) that suggests that planetary health would be better served by a dramatic re-visioning of our hegemonic anthropocentrism towards an enlightened co-existence with other life-forms. As the world warms, this new Cold War is fated to get increasingly hot. It is a war between the Moderns – those living out the scientific rationalities of the seventeenth century and who still formally exist within the Holocene, a geological epoch characterized by the geomorphic changes signaled by the end of the last ice age and the subsequent advent of agriculture – and those whom Latour calls the “Earthbound of the Anthropocene”, populations alive to the geologic epoch which takes account of humankind’s impact on geo-history and which embrace a world suffused with animism.

Timothy Morton, proclaimed by The Guardian as “the philosopher-prophet of the Anthropocene”, and most recently author of Humankind – Solidarity with Nonhuman People, 2017, sees a similar divide between modern humans who cleave to the modes of production established by those early fertile-crescent civilizations with their tendencies towards “the overkill intensity of the logistics of post-Neolithic agriculture” – and those who continue the traditions of the foragers, the people of the Paleolithic for whom the world is fully animate. He writes, “Everywhere in post-agricultural psychic, social and philosophical space, is evidence of a traumatic Severing of human and non-human relations”. ‘Severing’ is capitalized because of his conceit that our current dilemmas can be usefully framed in a Game of Thrones-like world. He continues, “traditional ecological models rely on the ruling class mandala structure…Nature gets to mean something pristine and pure, an endlessly exploitable resource or majestic backdrop to the doings of (human) folk”. Latour posits that “one of the great enigmas of Western history is not that there are still people naive enough to believe in animism, but that many people still hold the rather naive belief in a supposedly de-animated material world”. Like Morton, Latour is driven by the inherent drama of our predicament to make theatrical analogies: he sees the natural world as the scenery jumping up on the stage and demanding a part in the human play – a speaking part, no less!

We casually crossed the CO2 threshold of first, 350-ppm, sometime in the 1980’s and, as of a year ago, have driven over the 400-ppm line. Latour writes, “we went through total war and hardly noticed a thing”. We have arrived at what he calls “a profound mutation in our relation to the world”. We have quietly folded our tents and ceded our accustomed atmosphere to one that is now accelerating the sixth extinction towards its almost inevitable denouement: that of our own contingency in a profoundly changed world. Fire, winds and epic rains signal our loss in a war in which we barely engaged, while the scorekeepers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Mauna Loa Earth System Research Laboratory daily records our crushing and ever deepening defeat. The geologic aggregations of plastics, the drilling of oil and gas reserves and their ignition, the resultant changes in the chemical composition of the atmosphere, and the chemical residues of industrial production are now frequently stirred, wind driven, and rain pelted into spongey anthropogenic chimeras that, like the trenches of Northern France and Belgium in World War One, are the record of a war, but one in which we have stubbornly refused to fight. The latest United Nations projections point to a global temperature increase of 3.2 C (5.75F) by the end of the century. By then, sea level rise is expected to flood Alexandria, The Hague, Miami and Rio de Janeiro amongst countless other communities. Hurricanes and typhoons and their attendant storm surges now bring seasonal death and destruction but they are but precursors to this permanent submergence of coastal conurbations across the world.

Hurricanes are profoundly non-human. Like us, they are ecological beings but the temptation to render them as evil intruders is almost irresistible since they act in what we think of as our exclusive terrain. Yet we have begun, hesitatingly, to accept the rights of other predatory nonhumans to live in ‘our’ world. Growing numbers of people are beginning to accept the idea of co-existence with large carnivores such as wolves, grizzly bears and mountain lions. We are beginning to discuss the acceptance of forest fires (which struck California this summer with apparently deadly intent) as naturally regenerative – the threat to human life and property that they pose seen as a problem of human settlement patterns rather than that of their inherent maliciousness. How long will it be before we bring weather phenomena into this fold of accommodation?

The globe has been impacted by an asteroid-like extinction syndrome driven by the New Climatic Regime – in the Western hemisphere, the Caribbean is at the epicenter of the materially destructive forces this regime has unleashed. Florida and the Gulf Coast reap similar levels of weather chaos. If the-evil-that-men-do has been transmuted into the temper tantrums of our atmospheric swaddling – and which (who?) is now an actor on the no longer exclusively human stage (an erstwhile fantasy of the modern age) – the actions of our anthropocentric states (none more so than Trumpistan) appear to be increasingly marginalized.

The most destructive hurricanes of the season, Maria, Harvey and Irma, manifested in three of this nation’s most extreme political environments – at the frayed edges of our Republic where the potential for its unravelling is perhaps the greatest. One, the poster child of late-modern imperialism, mired in debt and under the thumb of Wall Street; the other a global hypercity – a metastasized oil metropolis surrounded by kudzu-like suburban and industrial malignancies that entrap and stifle it; and the third, a state existentially vulnerable to climate change and global warming but where the reality of those phrases is effectively denied by their Governor – using the tired ‘I am not a scientist’ defense. Each was viscerally impacted by a climatological body blow, the state powerless to control the violence and largely ineffectual in dealing with the resultant societal and infrastructural hemorrhaging. Hurricane Jose threatened outer areas of the Caribbean but in the end brushed by the northern Leeward Islands already battered by Irma. A weakened Katia made landfall at Tecolutla in Eastern Mexico where torrential rains caused deadly mudslides and added to the chaos in the earthquake shaken state of Veracruz.

The human tragedy following Hurricane Maria’s devastation of Turks and Caicos, Puerto Rico, Dominica and Haiti is heart-breaking. The Island of Puerto Rico (or Borinquén) harbors a much diminished patch of Edenic tropical rain forest in the El Yunque National Park but elsewhere functions as a low-wage haven for pharmaceutical, pesticide and bio-tech production and as a provider of minimum wage service sector jobs. It represents half a millennium of colonial rule now fully incarnated as the late-capitalist exploitation of a vulnerable and politically powerless work force. Given its debt status, it faces decades of austerity tactics from its Wall Street overlords who will doubtlessly ensure that its post hurricane reconstruction is repaid with an enhanced immiseration of the local population. Areas of the island may be in the process of becoming the world’s newest wet slums.

The hurricane claimed over fifty lives in Puerto Rico (a very conservative estimate recently amended by the journalist Vijay Prashad to a number almost ten times as large based on his travels in the highland villages) and left thousands more injured, sick, homeless and hungry. This was extreme climate violence enacted on a territory with a notably impoverished governmental structure. What promises to be a decades long Maria hang-over will serve both as reminder of the supreme power of cyclogenesis and as a continuing demonstration of the puny authority of a marginalized government. The territory’s outlook is grim, unless you are willing to count its people as heroic counter-revolutionaries trying to minimize the impacts of what Latour identifies “as a revolution that has taken place without us, against us, and, at the same time, through us”.

By chance, or the vagaries of academic tenure, Timothy Morton lives in Houston. The English-born, Oxford educated, and Bjork’s favorite philosopher teaches at Rice. He experienced Hurricane Harvey but was not rendered homeless, because, as he explains in his blog, he lives ”at high altitude for Houston, aka 1 meter above sea level (joke estimate)!” Many were not as fortunate. Houston has assumed the mantle of Los Angeles as the ultimate late-twentieth-century American City: of sprawl, freeways, smog; and with it, its vulnerability to disaster and its ecological racism. It is a pre-cursor city of Latour’s New Climatic Regime – an old-world oil, gas and petro-chemical metropolis sited on marginal lands; its cancerous growth feeding on the city’s surrounding wetlands and prairies. It is, as Morton suggests, an emblematic spatio-temporal piece of the hyperobject (that consists of humankind and their works) that has initiated a mass extinction of life-forms in the Anthropocene. Now deprived of buffer landscapes, lacking zoning regulation and in an era of weakened environmental standards it will be increasingly vulnerable to weather terrorism; its inhabitants in low lying suburbs more frequently at risk of flooding, toxic spills and chemical fires and ever more likely to become climate refugees.

It is academics who have been at the forefront of both promoting the modernity project and of the attempt to expose it as an anthropocentric conspiracy to side-line the sentience of other beings. In the proto-modern world, Copernicus drove humans out of the center of the cosmos; then Descartes established human consciousness at the center of our Universe surrounded by a de-animated and inert nature – anaesthetized and ready to dissect. Now, the cost to the world of this segmentation is amply apparent: human history seems cold and natural history frenzied: this summer, a frenzy called Irma was Florida’s Nemesis.

Chantel Acevedo, the Floridian novelist and academic of Cuban heritage, imagines sharks in the deep water of Miami’s flooded intersections and actually sees octopi stranded in her parking garage. Her five-year-old asks her, “Mom, will my room blow away?” “Irma was biblical”, she writes, in Vogue, November, 2017, “the warm waters of the Atlantic provided fuel, and Irma gulped and gulped. The swirling, giant storm, with its menacing eye, spoke of desolation to come.” Fully personified in the pages of a fashion magazine, one is left only to wonder what Irma will wear. In the event, she arrived in the Keys dressed as the grim-reaper, killing seventy-four before departing the state as a tropical depression. Property damage is in the sixty billion range.

Long ago, in 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans killing a total of 1,836 people along the Gulf coast and causing over $100 billion in property damage. Just five years ago, it was Hurricane Sandy that left New York with a death toll of 106 and property damage of almost a billion dollars. Unless we learn to co-exist with these heightened weather events, we will continue to be terrorized by them. From hurricanes alone, there have been well over 500 deaths in the U.S. since 2010. Never mind the death toll from other weather events such as floods, tornadoes, droughts and wild fires. The cost of this year’s hurricanes and wild fires in the U.S. is estimated by the General Accounting Office at $300 billion. Since 9-11, there have been 148 deaths in the U.S attributable to foreign terrorist attacks while the bill for the U.S. War on Terrorism has ballooned, from 2010 through 2018, to $1.774 Trillion. The 2017 budget for civil works by the Army Corps of Engineers, much of it ear-marked for storm remediation, is a puny $4.62 billion.

If keeping the American people safe and their property protected are the criteria, the inevitable conclusion is that our Federal spending priorities are grotesquely out of whack. The state has indeed retained its monopoly on violence rendered by guns, missiles, drones, chemical agents, capital punishment, torture and incarceration, and spends trillions exercising that right; it has however, through at least six presidencies since Carter (the first World Climate Conference was held in Geneva in 1979), been entirely remiss in making any sort of reasonable attempt to control weather terrorism. As such, it has likely confirmed its fate as an irrelevancy in the New Climatic Regime, in this, the first century of the Anthropocene.

Timothy Morton notes, “Since the UN’s Earth Summit in Rio, 1992, what has underpinned the fascist right in the USA has been opposition to solidarity with nonhumans”. In other words, our government’s refusal to engage with geo-history has made it complicit in the sixth extinction. Culpability can be spread across the decades, but perhaps it reaches it apogee with the incumbency of Al Gore as vice president, 1993 – 2001, who, he wants us to believe, understood what was going on. Given that he presumably understood the Earth to be imminent danger, his signal failure to act aggressively on his putative presidential victory in 2000 (and thus be in a position to ‘save the Earth’) suggests both a towering cowardice and a profound narcissism. Morton writes that when he hears the word sustainability, he reaches for his sunscreen, echoing the Nazi propagandist Hanns Johst, 1890 – 1978, who wrote, in 1933, “when I hear the word culture, I release the safety catch from my Browning”. When I hear the name Al Gore I think to check the appalling list of nonhuman extinctions catalogued by The Center for Biological Diversity. Morton has doubts about Gore’s avowed mission – the saving of the Earth – if that only means “preserving a reasonably human-friendly environment”. What this preserves, he suggests, “is the cinema in which human desire projection can play on the blank screen of everything else”. Like Latour, he counsels a solidarity with the nonhuman.

Since Latour correctly suggests that we have already lost the war against limiting the ppm of carbon in the atmosphere and the resultant weather extremes, we have been reduced to creating secondary lines of defense consisting of hard and soft infrastructures that attempt the containment of these new, globally warmed geo-storms in the attempt, worthy or not, of preserving a human-friendly environment. The money to create these defenses comes from a combination of State and Federal budgets, institutions and private enterprise: most of that money is devoted to hard infrastructures which are mostly made of concrete – which has a huge energy footprint. Concrete production currently contributes about 1% of the greenhouse gases emitted in the U.S. exacerbating the very reasons for its extravagant use in storm barriers and sea walls.

In Manhattan where the surrounding sea level is projected to rise six feet within the century, an ambitious scheme originally conceived of as a big “U” of concrete and steel fortifications, water parks and dunes around Lower Manhattan promises protection from future storm surges and is currently undergoing community review. In Bridgeport Connecticut, hard and soft infrastructures are planned for this community hard hit by super storm Irene in 2011 and the following year by Sandy. An existing seaside park, originally designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, is being re-engineered by Dutch flood control consultants to act as a storm surge buffer.

Manipulation of the landscape to enhance human and nonhuman existence (making a friendlier human environment in ways complementary to other life and land forms) has a long tradition reaching far back into the paleolithic era. The hard edges of our continent that support the logistics of energy, food and raw material import and export as well as the incoming container loads of finished Chinese goods, will inevitably soften: our choice is whether to encourage this process by design or resist it and thus prolong the recalcitrance of weather terrorism.

In Miami, key roads are being elevated to serve as escape routes for flood refugees; an extensive system of pumping stations is being augmented; sea walls proliferate, and flood gates have been installed to protect strategic highway tunnels. New commercial buildings are designed to sit on concrete plinths that rise sixteen feet or more above grade. The high-style Perez Art Museum designed by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, sits on a plinth while its expansive glazed areas have undergone ballistics testing to verify their ability to repel a weather terrorism weapon-of-choice: a 2 x 4 wood stud, wind driven at a speed of 50 feet per second.

The newly relocated Whitney Art Museum in New York, now sandwiched between the Hudson River and the Highline park, was re-designed, mid-construction, after Sandy, to withstand storm surges through a system of sea gates and barricades. Our finest cultural storehouses are thus being elaborately protected against impending weather terrorism while they serve as symbols of the privileging of human consciousness that characterizes modernity and which, in turn, has now been geo-historically reified as the ‘asteroid’ of the sixth extinction.

In New Orleans, twelve years after Hurricane Katrina, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is up grading the city’s levees and finally removing or replacing the temporary floodgates and pumps it installed after the emergency – which was exacerbated by their earlier engineering miscalculations. New schools, hospitals and housing are being built under a city-wide water plan which requires that individual developments contribute to the storage and ground-infiltration of storm water flows. New waterways and parks are being designed as storm water management elements as well as recreational resources. Marshes and grasslands are being revived as natural retention and infiltration areas, yet the coastal wetlands, the city’s best and softest defense against storm surges, continue to erode.

The wisdom of defiant urban renewal in the face of the overwhelming vulnerabilities of the Mississippi estuary and its coast line is rarely questioned; solutions are more usually framed in terms of the hard re-engineering of miles of the great river below New Orleans; while plans to save the coast to protect the city and its industrial infrastructures will likely destroy the rural communities who have developed ecologically viable settlements in the littoral. Alternatively, a program that restores indigenous plant, animal and bird communities at the water’s edge would provide soft-landings for violent tropical storms and push urban and industrial development into the hinterland away from the continent’s most vulnerable ecotones.

It is useful to heed Morton’s advice: “It’s very important that we keep our imagination, which is our capacity to open the future, awake, at a time at which the urge to collapse into the fetal position is high.” There are practical things one can do to mitigate the impacts of weather terrorism, and developing community solidarity in preparedness for such events (as widely practiced in Cuba and elsewhere in the Caribbean) may be the most valuable; but as important, perhaps, is to understand that the various parts of our lives that support the hyperobject – that historic, socio-economic and political ‘asteroid’ that warms the waters of the Atlantic and causes daily nonhuman extinction – are quite small and can be easily subverted: your credit card cut in half, for instance.

Solutions to our predicament will likely be similarly small in scale. Latour shares Morton’s notion that seeking ‘wholes’ is necessarily dismissive of what they subtend: our connectedness to each other and to the nonhuman depends on diverse symbioses not on holism. We need to attend to these connections not their ideological containers. Latour writes, “Each time we talk about Nature, Earth, the Global, Capitalism or God, we are presupposing the existence of a superior organism. The passage through connections is immediately replaced by a relation between parts and the Whole”.

The gang-of-five has quietly retired, and the hateful-eight has drifted into history; but these heavily anthropomorphized ecological beings have played their part. They did indeed enact our (and perhaps their) fantasy of getting up on the stage and speaking. Did we hear them amidst the howling of their winds, amidst their apparently willful destruction as they demonstrated the awful majesty of their climatic power?

Can we now welcome them, and those that will follow in annual alphabetized procession, into the family of human and nonhuman beings in a newly non-anthropocentric, re-animated world as both intensely scary ecological objects morphed into gigantism by our exploitation of fossil-fuels but also as regenerative beings – like their elemental ally, forest fires – of great beauty and spiritual power? To do so would signal a re-connecting to the nonhuman by humankind mitigating both the contingency of our own existence and that of all nonhuman beings.

The alternative is to continue in our extreme Cartesian anthropocentrism: to continue to resist the impacts of weather terrorism with concrete, steel and bullet-proof glass; to continue to rebuild in place and attempt to deny the terrestrial morphological modifications that climate change makes inevitable.

In 2017, as in past years, there were many heroic examples of human solidarity in the face of the marauding hurricanes. It is tempting to believe that in the Caribbean, where the people deal with these regular emergencies stoically and with sensible preparedness rather than under the influence of media shock and awe and of hasty evacuation plans, there is also an underlying solidarity with the nonhuman. Is it entirely too romantic to believe that the death grip of modernity on the Caribbean is less tenacious than on the U.S. mainland; to believe that the disease that is America (another hyperobject) is less fully entrenched in these islands that bear the initial brunt of so many South Atlantic hurricanes? That in Puerto Rico, this vestigial solidarity is evidenced in what Vijay Prashad calls the ‘Campsites of the Forgotten’ – epitomized by a mountain town called Utuado, 104 kilometers south-west of San Juan – where the 33,000 inhabitants have banded together to sustain themselves in the face of great infrastructural damage; where there is a re-discovery of old ways of ‘making-do’ (like using mountain spring water) he so movingly described in his essay, The Devastation Of Puerto Rico? As a part of this reawakened solidarity, can we doubt that the Island’s people have also re-animated their nonhuman surroundings?

Are we ready to understand the lessons of weather terrorism and follow Morton and Latour, outliers of the environmental movement, purveyors of what Morton and others characterize as ‘Dark Ecology’, into the realm of non-anthropocentric ecognosis (the logic of future co-existence) where humankind subtends from the whole in an interconnectedness with the nonhuman?

John Davis is an architect living in southern California. Read more of his writing at urbanwildland.org  

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