The past two weeks have witnessed truly horrifying climate events across the US. From the wild fires in Oregon and California, the devastation brought by Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Louisiana, to the in-progress Hurricane Irma in Florida and Georgia, our country is enduring unprecedented climate damage and millions of Americans are suffering and in some cases dying.
The work now is to save and evacuate people, to provide shelter and comfort, and to endure. But the more important work, work that we should have been doing already, must begin as soon as possible. It includes a radical change to how we value land use and how the real estate industry operates, but that even that won’t be enough. We must rethink capitalism in the 21st century.
It is difficult to discuss these storms while looking out of my window at a beautiful fall day in NYC. I look at a playground that is full of laughing kids running around and parents chatting with each other. I can see the crowded tents of the farmers’ market where I’ll probably go by some apple cider after finishing this post. It is serene. It is difficult knowing that so many people across the Caribbean, the Gulf (including the victims of the earthquake in Mexico) and Florida are either trying to make sense of a society in ruins or to make sure their homes are still intact.
But even what I’m looking at now experienced some of those same fears and feelings only five years ago during Superstorm Sandy. The storm surge came frightfully close to that same playground, even though it’s a good 8-minute walk to the East River. We lost power for 9 days. The National Guard came to help us go door-to-door through thousands of apartments, checking on older residents who were trapped. By Day 9 it was getting cold out and I still sometimes wonder how bad it could have gotten if we didn’t get power back that day.
Where I live was swamp and coastline 200 years ago; it was filled in like many parts of Manhattan. The water during Sandy came up to that former coastline with remarkable consistency across the island. It’s almost as if nature had figured out where Manhattan should stop. But we ignored it and pushed further.
That we even have to endure “debate” that climate change is “real” is tragically self-destructive. Of course it is real and of course we are causing it. And of course it is complicated to measure and difficult to draw direct links between these storms and carbon emissions. But the obvious point is: our weather is changing in increasing dangerous, unpredictable, and likely permanent ways.
That we have been failing to craft public policy that even remotely protects us against climate change is irresponsible and depressing. The current administration is telling us not to discuss it while cutting research funding for it, but the previous administration didn’t do enough when it had the chance. One party is villainous, the other is cowardly. Both are guilty of failing our present and our future.
In addition, much has been written about poor land use regulations in Houston and no doubt much will be written about hyper development policies in Florida. Between the two storms, over 10 million people will have been impacted. A fraction of those numbers lived in these areas just two generations ago. Their growth happened quickly and without any respect for the environment they exist in.
Could some of the havoc been avoided if there were stricter flood zone controls, density measures, and better building codes? Absolutely. Florida and particularly Texas have prided themselves on their lower cost of living and lower government oversight. Taxes are low, but that has consequences.
Could some of the suffering have been avoided if it wasn’t so cheap for people to live in these areas? Sure. Water control, air-conditioning, and cheap travel (by car or plane) made these areas attractive and profitable. Growth is constant, but that has consequences too.
These storms were more dangerous and destructive because of climate change, which is being caused by the very things that made those areas expand in the first place. And those same decisions made it harder for the natural environment to absorb the rains and the storm surges of Harvey and Irma. It is an increasingly untenable cycle.
But the problem is even bigger. Climate change and our inability to comprehend it is the hubris of our modern capitalist system manifested. The readily accepted idea that our society should value economic growth above all else has all but eliminated our ability to think critically about how we interact with our environment. It has blinded us to the limitations that all human civilizations have faced over where they can live. It has made us think we are the sole, dominant actor on our planet. And it has put us all in danger.
A system that relies on the exploitation of the natural world (and, lest we forget, of the human body) can’t simply separate itself from that world. That system relies on the premise that certain inputs are priced according to their scarcity, while others have no price (or a low price) because they are abundant. The idea that we could run out of drinkable water, arable land, or breathable air doesn’t factor into our foundational beliefs. But those resources aren’t endless and they aren’t immune to our actions.
This isn’t about Texas or Florida, or even NYC or any place on the west coast. This is about a system that has been lying to us and this is about us letting it get away with it. It has been allowed to shield itself behind a false layer of rationality, claiming that the power of the market to price our goods and activities is the best way — the only way, in fact — to organize our society.
But capitalism has never accurately priced how we have chosen to build our world. The cost of fossil fuels isn’t captured at the pump. The cost of housing isn’t captured at the closing. The cost of disposable goods isn’t captured at the checkout counter. The true cost comes in polluted air, dead oceans, and, yes, powerful storms.
What is so disheartening, in addition to the human suffering happening as we speak, is how little will change. Our elected leaders have already promised the great recovery. Congress might haggle over funding and a few politicians might be embarrassed by past or current votes, but federal funds and private funds will surge in to these areas just as fiercely as the storms. Our political system accepts this like its a business cycle and not an existential threat.
As a result, some people will be able to rebuild, some won’t. Some will lose money, others will make it. Maybe, for a time, some cities and towns will discuss how to be ready for the next storm.
But as we learned in the five years after Sandy, even in an area that accepts climate change and has the resources to make dramatic changes, our system simply isn’t built to price the cost of future storms and future suffering.
Until we ask why and until we say no more, all we’re doing is buying time. And that’s a deal where we’re increasingly paying more for less.