In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, New York grassroots groups have charted an inspiring alternative to disaster capitalism.
From hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, to catastrophic flooding in South Asia, to the wildfires raging across the American West, the extreme weather events of recent months have made it all too clear: climate change is not a future possibility but a current reality. Within the scientific community, and even in publications such as the World Bank’s Turn Down the Heat, the assumption is that the promises of international climate negotiators to maintain global warming below 2°C are hollow and that the world is already on a trajectory for at least 4°C of warming. Fatih Birol, chief economist for the International Energy Agency, has warned that current global energy-consumption levels put the planet on an even more alarming path to warm by at least 6°C above preindustrial levels by 2100.
We are warming the Earth at a rate that is unprecedented, forcing changes in planetary systems at a speed and magnitude for which there is no geological record in Earth’s past, including during the Permian mass extinction event, when 90 percent of all species were wiped out. We are, in fact, in the midst of the planet’s sixth mass-extinction event, although climate change is still responsible for only a relatively small (but increasing) percentage of species loss. The climatic conditions under which human civilization came to dominate the planet—the era of relative environmental stability since the Neolithic revolution 12,000 years ago—are now behind us. Today’s fight is over how fast climate change will happen and how bad the future will be.
The age of disaster is also the age of the city. Indeed, the two are inextricably intertwined. Mike Davis writes:
Heating and cooling the urban built environment alone is responsible for an estimated 35 to 45 percent of current carbon emissions, while urban industries and transportation contribute another 35 to 40 percent. In a sense, city life is rapidly destroying the ecological niche—Holocene climate stability—which made its evolution into complexity possible.
If today’s cities are one of the major drivers of climate chaos, they are also its principal victims. The storms of climate chaos are already breaking on human shores, and their devastation is most apparent in the planet’s coastal megacities, where vulnerable infrastructures, massive economic resources, and human populations are concentrated in unprecedented quantities. The city is paradoxically the greatest expression, principal culprit, and most endangered artifact of our turbulent times.
There is no better place to bear witness to these contradictions and shifts than New York City. As the world’s preeminent financial hub, New York is not only the world’s most iconic modern city, but also one of its most densely built and cosmopolitan urban spaces. While it has been surpassed in population by the megacities of the global South, it continues to be seen as the citadel of modern capitalism and to control key institutions of the global economy. Meteorites, flying saucers, giant radioactive monsters, and, of course, zombies—no other city in the world has been destroyed in as many ways and as many times in literature and films as New York. The flooding of New York by Hurricane Sandy generated similarly spectacular images, not of an external threat laying waste to Gotham, but of capitalism’s own self-destruction. Climate chaos brought one of the modern era’s greatest cities to its knees, a city that has become synonymous with unbridled free market capitalism. With its massive carbon footprint and the outsize global impact of its financial institutions, New York bears a disproportionate responsibility for deepening climate chaos.
At the same time, New York can also make a strong claim for being the paradigmatic green city, thanks to New Yorkers’ dense living patterns and use of public transportation, as well as recent initiatives like the creation of more than 400 miles of bike lanes. But five years ago, Hurricane Sandy revealed the hubris of celebrations of New York as a green metropolis, exposing a city completely unprepared for the larger threats posed by climate change. Like Hurricane Katrina before it, Sandy also showed the yawning social divisions that fissure cities, making a mockery of homogenizing accounts of urban resilience. Since the superstorm devastated us, much effort has been expended to help the city adapt to a warmer, more unstable world. Yet there has been relatively little discussion of the links between the city’s vulnerability to climate change, and the economic and social inequalities New York embodies. There has been even less critical analysis of the model of untrammeled economic growth that New York incarnates. The world is watching. How New York City attempts to mitigate and adapt to climate change—and also to respond to climate justice more broadly—will set key precedents nationally and internationally.
On the morning after Hurricane Sandy hit the city, New Yorkers who had met and formed bonds during the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement fanned out across the city to see which areas had been hardest hit and where help was needed. OWS activists had stayed in touch for several days using social media and friendship networks. Now they were checking in on one another and finding out what could be done to help communities devastated by the storm. The orientation of Occupy toward issues of inequality meant that activists knew disaster would not affect the city equally: the people who would bear the brunt would be those already struggling to survive in the extreme city. The poor and working class who inhabit the city’s outer boroughs would be the ones left without electrical power. Occupy activists were clear even before the storm hit that whatever resources they could muster should be concentrated on such marginalized communities.
The movement that came to be known as Occupy Sandy created central relief hubs across New York City that in turn facilitated the creation of smaller centers in a network structure. Soon, the movement had spread beyond the boroughs of New York and into the hurricane-affected coastal regions of New Jersey. Occupy Sandy established three main distribution hubs in the city (“Jacobi” in Queens, “Clinton” in Brooklyn, and “Red Hook” in Brooklyn) where it stored resources, conducted volunteer trainings, and coordinated regional operations. “Recovery” hubs were set up in areas particularly badly affected by the storm, including the Rockaways, the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Staten Island, Coney Island, and Red Hook. Smaller recovery sites were also established in Canarsie, Sheepshead Bay, Bay Ridge, Gerritsen Beach, Long Island, and across New Jersey. Occupy Sandy very quickly became the key disaster-relief effort in the region.
At its height, Occupy Sandy helped to coordinate the activities of nearly 60,000 volunteers, mobilizing resources four times greater in size than the Red Cross. So effective was Occupy Sandy in getting emergency supplies to those most in need that official disaster-relief organizations and city authorities were forced to acknowledge grudgingly the movement’s importance in the wake of the hurricane and to collaborate with Occupy activists. It should be recalled that it had been less than a year since the New York Police Department forcibly evicted the Occupy movement from Zuccotti Park, arresting hundreds of the same activists that authorities were now dependent on to get aid to those in need after Sandy.
But Occupy Sandy was not alone in its fight against disaster capitalism. Occupy’s mutual aid strategy was particularly effective during the immediate crisis thanks to the many partnerships with community organizations that activists were able to forge. In January 2013, roughly three months after Sandy struck New York, a group of over forty environmental justice organizations, community-based groups, labor unions, and allies met to develop plans for a grassroots-led recovery process that would include the priorities of low-income people, communities of color, immigrants, and workers. This alliance came to be known as the Sandy Regional Assembly. The organizations making up the assembly stressed how their members had often been the first and last responders to disasters such as Hurricane Sandy. They called for a just rebuilding, one that wouldn’t simply restore the conditions of extreme inequality from before the storm, and insisted that the recovery process could not and should not focus on rebuilding infrastructure alone.
One of the Sandy Regional Assembly’s key demands was that the city should certify that any project initiated under the recovery program would not lead to a reduction in the supply of affordable housing for low- and moderate-income residents in disaster-affected neighborhoods. Based on the argument that resiliency is a product of social connectedness and community integrity, assembly members called on the city to fund community organizations’ proposals for the establishment of Climate Adaptation/Disaster Relief Centers, which would educate vulnerable communities about climate change threats, help to reduce disaster vulnerability, and track community members with special needs. Finally, in a call that goes to the heart of questions of urban sustainability in the age of climate chaos, the Sandy Regional Assembly urged the city to establish overlapping, distributed, sustainable systems for critical energy, food distribution, and transportation networks.
By issuing such demands for the transformation of urban infrastructures in the context of a blueprint for just rebuilding, the Sandy Regional Assembly highlighted the extent to which radical adaptation must confront questions of power, of conflicting interests, control, and ownership—as well as legacies of colonialism, racism, and class- and gender-discrimination—in the provision of resources such as energy, food, and transportation. Radical adaptation, in other words, necessitates a significant power shift.
The Recovery Agenda called for by the Sandy Regional Assembly drew on the deep experience of member organizations like El Puente, UpRose, and WE ACT for Environmental Justice. Soon a broader group took shape to build on the themes articulated in the Agenda: the Alliance for a Just Rebuilding, which included Occupy Sandy activists as well as many of the environmental justice organizations, community groups, and labor unions that were part of the assembly. Testifying at a meeting of the New York City Council’s Committee on Public Safety, members of the alliance argued:
resiliency must mean more than immediate responses and storm barriers, although those are very important. To have a more resilient city, we need to create more equity and economic opportunity for communities that have been neglected for decades. Resiliency means things like access to good jobs, pathways to job training, real affordable housing, and stewardship of our environment.
The alliance successfully lobbied the city’s Organization of Emergency Management to support people displaced by Hurricane Sandy, including providing for undocumented immigrants and for uninterrupted access of poor communities to food stamps and other essential supplies. The alliance also monitored the rebuilding process, issuing reports that demonstrated the massive inefficiency and corruption of then-mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Build It Back Program. This independent monitoring subsequently led to damning investigations by watchdog agencies such as the New York City Department of Investigation, which concluded that more than 90 percent of homeowners seeking help from the Build It Back Program had received no assistance two years after Sandy struck the city. In addition, the alliance also helped coordinate marches on City Hall, where community advocates made connections between rebuilding efforts after 9/11 and after Sandy. Bobby Tolbert, a member of alliance member organization VOCAL-NY, made the following argument at a rally held during the final months of the Bloomberg administration:
A lot of precious post-9/11 disaster money ended up going to big real estate and financial institutions to help build luxury apartments in lower Manhattan that not even the firefighters and first responders who valiantly rescued people when the towers fell could afford to live in. This cannot happen again. As Sandy money gets allocated, we need our new mayor to direct city entities, particularly the Economic Development Corporation, to put the needs of low-income and vulnerable New Yorkers first and ensure good jobs and affordable housing result from these new investments.
“Economic development in post-Sandy New York must lift all boats, not only the yachts of the real estate industry,” argued Pastor David Rommereim, a leader of the organization Faith in NY, at the same rally.
Movements such as the Alliance for a Just Rebuilding are the primary protagonists in struggles for radical forms of adaptation. This is because, as urban sociologist Daniel Aldana Cohen puts it, “anti-gentrification battles against displacement in relatively dense areas, and fights to build new public housing close to mass transit, jobs, and services—these are struggles whose very core is a battle for climate justice.” Such movements challenge the rule of capital by fighting to take land and housing off the market, to expand public services, to establish living wages for low-income communities, and to establish energy democracy and collective control over the resources of urban power generation. Simultaneously, they struggle to defend compact urban living arrangements that marry small carbon footprints with public amenities such as parks and libraries. While innovative forms of green design and technology must be a part of this struggle, far more important in this transformation is the priority given to public affluence over private wealth.
Although it would be an exaggeration to say that the battle for a just rebuilding was singlehandedly responsible for the election of populist mayor Bill de Blasio, the coalition of groups that mobilized behind him certainly played an important role. The well-documented failures of Bloomberg’s Build It Back Program dramatized the elitism of his top-down development and reconstruction approach, and he was severely criticized when he visited areas such as the Rockaways, where residents of public housing were still struggling with mold and other storm-related destruction years after Sandy. De Blasio pledged to fix these shortcomings when he visited during his campaign, and, although he caught flak for the time it took for his administration to make good on his promises, when he released OneNYC, his update of Bloomberg’s PlaNYC, it was perceived by members of the Alliance for a Just Rebuilding as the product of a genuine engagement with the organization’s campaigns. Most important, OneNYC introduced equity as the cardinal guiding principle for Gotham’s sustainability frameworks. Although this principle is woven through the many specific proposals for upgrading urban infrastructure in OneNYC, the overarching emphasis on equity emerges from the perception that “for true climate justice to exist, resiliency cannot rest with ‘bouncing back’ to an inequitable system where people of color and low-income communities are disproportionately burdened,” according to the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance (NYC-EJA).
While continuing to engage with and put pressure on existing channels of urban governance, New York’s environmental justice organizations are also developing their own, remarkably forward-thinking proposals for radical adaptation. For instance, in 2015 Harlem’s West Harlem Environmental Action (WE ACT), one of the city’s most venerable environmental justice groups, held a series of workshops during which community residents and organizations developed a climate action plan for northern Manhattan using a participatory planning process. The 600,000, predominantly African-American and Latinx, residents of Northern Manhattan deal with a disproportionate amount of pollution and the health risks that come with it. WE ACT has long documented and fought against this environmental injustice, but, as the Northern Manhattan Climate Action Plan (NMCA) states, these longstanding inequalities were not simply dramatized but deepened by Hurricane Sandy. The action plan helps build the movement to link urban social justice with environmental justice, which is in turn linked to global struggles for climate justice.
Reflecting the lessons learned by social movements in recent years, the action plan also is unequivocal in its insistence that mobilization must unfold both within civil society and by the state. “We must engage with the legislative process, while building our own systems of economic exchange and urban development that are not dependent on a faltering public sector,” it states. Organizations such as WE ACT are clear that the struggle to transform and democratize the city necessitates continued mobilization on a variety of scales, from the neighborhood to the municipal level to the federal government and, finally, to all important transnational connections with other organizations fighting for climate justice.
The Northern Manhattan Climate Action Plan sets out a series of proposals for radical adaptation in four key areas: energy democracy, emergency preparedness, social hubs or meeting places, and public participation. The proposals in each of these areas contribute to cutting-edge intersectional struggles for climate justice and urban equality. In the platform for Energy Democracy, for instance, the action plan underlines the challenge of energy poverty for residents of New York’s low-income communities:
According to the US Energy Information Administration, New Yorkers pay the nation’s second-highest energy prices. This manifests as a disproportionate cost burden for low-income New Yorkers, which threatens not only their ability to retain access to energy services, but also limits access to housing, healthy food, healthcare, and other costly necessities.
Access to adequate energy sources has long been a political issue in the global South, but as austerity bites deeper in impoverished communities in cities in the core capitalist nations, energy poverty is becomingly an increasingly pressing issue: poor people are paying more and more for power, and in some cases are even having their power cut off by companies whose only interest is the bottom line. In order to combat this increasing crisis, the Northern Manhattan Action Plan calls for green energy projects that directly benefit low-income communities, rather than adding to property values in green enclaves like Battery Park City.
In particular, the action plan points to the potential of forms of distributed energy generation such as microgrids, freestanding local energy systems that can operate independently of the main grid. The action plan hopes that such microgrids may help promote the shift from fossil fuels to renewable sources while also empowering local communities both economically and politically. It is not enough, in other words, simply to shift from fossil fuel–generated power to renewable sources: communities rather than big corporations must be able to control energy for real benefits to be seen on a local level. For the many neighborhood residents who participated in the workshops that led to the action plan, community-managed microgrid systems “can confer direct economic benefits on low-income residents by creating manufacturing, construction, and maintenance jobs while also providing savings.” In order to ensure that such savings end up in the hands of tenants rather than landlords, the action plan advocates the formation of green energy cooperatives, potentially building on existing tenant associations, that would give residents of public housing democratic control over the generation, consumption, and costs of renewable power generation. As in all other aspects of the action plan, in other words, the emphasis is on transforming urban infrastructures in a manner that challenges inequality and simultaneously deepens grassroots democracy.
The struggle for energy democracy outlined in WE ACT’s Northern Manhattan Action Plan raises fundamental and inescapable questions about the organization not simply of infrastructure but of social relations in the extreme city. Genuine democratic control of energy production and consumption—whether at a community, municipal, or state level—will only be possible if the competitive market conditions under which public entities like power companies operate is transformed. Otherwise, the basic premise of competitive accumulation under which public initiatives are forced to operate will militate against social and environmental justice. In order to realize the many progressive initiatives—from social hubs to community-supported agriculture and participatory budgeting—being generated by community-planning projects such as WE ACT’s Action Plan, a fundamental transformation of capitalist social relations must take place. As Naomi Klein puts it:
[O]ur economy is at war with many forms of life on earth, including human life. What the climate needs is a contraction in humanity’s use of resources; what our economic model demands to avoid collapse is unfettered expansion. Only one of these sets of rules can be changed, and it’s not the laws of nature.
Ashley Dawson is a Professor of English at the City University of New York. This article is adapted from Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change, just out from Verso Books.