When the seas rise

April 5, 2019 (1741 words) :: I have still not come to terms with the fact that things could be catastrophic, and I'm not sure how I ever could.
Tags: personal

This post is day 95 of a personal challenge to write every day in 2019. See the other fragments, or sign up for my weekly newsletter.

Today’s post is a little off the beaten path for my fragments, but I just read a really eye-opening piece over at Popula by writer Sarah Miller: Heaven or High Water. It’s a terrific reported piece and/or personal essay about the luxury real estate market in Miami & how it’s dealing with the fact that Miami will likely be underwater in the near future.

Some excerpts from the piece:

The consensus among informed observers is that the sea will rise in Miami Beach somewhere between 13 and 34 inches by 2050. By 2100, it is extremely likely to be closer to six feet, which means, unless you own a yacht and a helicopter, sayonara. Sunset Harbour is expected to fare slightly worse, and to do so more quickly.

Thus, I felt the Sunset Harbour area was a good place to start pretending to buy a home here. Amazingly, in the face of these incontrovertible facts about the climate the business of luxury real estate is chugging along just fine, and I wanted to see the cognitive dissonance up close.

As Miller reports in the piece, sporadic flooding has become more common in recent years, and the city’s response (to raise some buildings) has been shockingly minimal compared to the scale of what’s needed. Raising buildings might save some of them from being flooded, but what about the streets? How do the people who live there think they’re going to get anything? Do they imagine there’ll be Postmates couriers in kayaks to bring them their dinner?

The general vibe that Miller describes in the piece is of cheerful denial. As one real estate agent says to the author:

“The scientists, economists, and environmentalists that are saying this stuff, they don’t realize what a wealthy area this is.” She said that she lived here and wasn’t leaving, and that the people selling Miami were confident, and all working on the same goal as a community to maintain this place, with the pumps and the zoning and raising the streets. There were just too many millionaires and billionaires here for a disaster on a great scale to be allowed to take place.

In other words: there are important people here! The world would not let anything bad happen to it. Flint can go under, and Hurricane Katrina can devastate swathes of the southeastern states, but those places were poor whereas Miami Beach is rich.

Unfortunately, this kind of reasoning only works if you believe that the world actually has the ability to fix the problem, and can marshal resources together in time. If “saving Miami Beach” is the only problem that every single person in the world focuses on for the next 5 years, you know, maybe it’s possible. But that’s not exactly a likely outcome, because capitalism’s got other priorities, and because there are other, more pressing, impending disasters to ward off.

Later in the piece, the author describes how much she loved being there (the weather, the beach, the atmosphere, etc), and adds: “The whole time I was there I was like, yeah, I could see why no one wants to admit how fucked this place is.” She elaborates on that more near the end:

[…] Who of us behaves as if we were in immediate trouble? We work, and at the end of the day, if we think at all, all we have time to think about is that we are cowards, or, before the thought comes, to escape it. […] Every day, I ask myself, what are you willing to do? And sometimes I feel righteous and strong, but mostly what I feel is fear, and a drive towards self preservation. […]

And you know, this might actually happen! How do we think this is all going to end? With the election of a better candidate? With the passing of a law?

Full disclosure: I live in a town in rural Northern California that could burn down to the ground literally any day, and I’m thinking about buying a house here.

This part resonated with me to a chilling degree. I now live in San Francisco, and just a few months before I moved there, wildfires all over California created smoke that caused San Francisco’s air quality to catapult to the top of the pollution indexes. People were casually walking around in N95 masks, many of them handed out for free by DSA SF, incidentally (it’s unbelievable that a tiny socialist org had to do something that the city should have been doing, but here we are). And San Francisco is probably overdue for a massive earthquake - the “big one”, it’s called.

In times of peace, we build all these systems - economic, social, cultural - under the assumption that things will carry on as they always have. The underlying material factors, like the environment that provides us with the resources we need to survive, are expected to change within a fairly narrow window, and usually for the better. The institutions that we’ve developed all rest on the premise that the future won’t be all that different, and if it is, it will be better. We go to school, get jobs, buy houses, start families, collect stamps, make art, whatever, on the implicit assumption that all of this will matter, because the earth won’t literally open up from beneath us.

Reading this piece, it kind of just hit me how bad things could get. I still don’t fully get it, for sure. And even if I ever do understand on an intellectual level, I don’t know if I’m ever going to get it on an emotional level, or on a subconscious level. There is still a part of me that is the person I used to be, who saw the world as a basically static map of institutions and just wanted to maximise personal achievement within that. I find it hard to imagine what it would be like to overthrow the existing institutions that comprise global capitalism, as many on the left think would be necessary if humanity is going to have any sort of society worth saving ~12 years from now.

The other day, Jason brought up an intriguing possibility: what if it turns out we (the left) are wrong about climate change? What if capitalism is able to maneuver us out of this crisis, either because things aren’t actually that bad after all, or because our liberal political institutions will adjust, or because some heroic entrepreneurial figure will come up with some geoengineering plan in the nick of time?

I would love for us to be wrong. If anti-capitalist arguments turn out to be unfounded, and the price we pay is being mercilessly mocked for the rest of our lives for being so utterly wrong, then so be it. The goal of the left is not about dogmatic adherence to particular theories about how the world works; the point isn’t to be able to stand on top of the rubble in ten years and say “I told you so!” The point is to build a better society, and our theoretical frameworks are merely maps to help guide us there. Our maps might turn out to be wrong, and that would probably make us feel stupid, but at least we would have gotten to where we wanted to go.

But what if our maps aren’t wrong? What if our theoretical understandings of capitalism’s failures - especially when it comes to internalising costs relating to nature - are reasonably accurate? What if it is simply not possible to address the ecological challenges we face when the dominant economic system is that of laissez-faire capitalism?

If the left is wrong, but does not have the power to enact its vision, then the worst case scenario is that people make fun of us at social gatherings 20 years from now for being paranoid and pessimistic. If the left is wrong but does have the power to dramatically transform capitalism to mitigate ecological catastrophe (enacting the Green New Deal, for example), then the worst case scenario is that the state hobbles private sector innovation by making us all focus on a threat that isn’t actually that big a deal. (Like Y2K panic, for example). Neither of these scenarios seems especially terrible, to me.

However, if the left is right, but does not manage to build enough power in time, then the outcomes would be disastrous. Like just unthinkably bad, forget about all the life plans you had and the house you were going to buy in Miami or California. Forget about your travel bucket list, because those places are all underwater now anyway. Even if the left does manage to steer the ship safely, it seems unlikely that things will just go back to normal, either, because even the most ambitious climate-focused mobilisation is about damage mitigation, not prevention.

This sort of analysis is really depressing, and definitely makes me inclined to want the left to be wrong. Even though I have spent the last couple of years in a zealous pursuit of the golden thread of truth that I’ve found in the left, I still don’t think I am the kind of person I need to be in order to deal with the ramifications of what I now believe. On a day-to-day basis, I still act as if things are going to be okay, as if we’re just in the course of a normal passage through the institutions of society, and therefore I should behave according to institutional norms. When, maybe, I should be prepping or getting aggressively involved in left organising or something.

I guess the optimal thing to believe here is along the lines of that famous Gramsci quote: pessimism of the intellect (assume that things are going to go to shit in the next 12 years) and optimism of the will (have faith that left organising can make a difference). And sure, maybe in a few decades’ time this sort of intellectual pessimism will be derided as having been naive, rather than prescient, because Elon Musk et al were able to save us without having to resort to the left’s antiquated ideas. If this turns out to be the case, well, I suppose I’ll be able to live with it. Somehow, I don’t think that’s what’s going to happen.

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