New Orleans Hurricane Sandy was tragic in every way that one can imagine, but it was also tragic in the same way that all “acts of god” reduce the scale of mankind’s hand in the environment as inconsequential in the face of nature. In the wake of even larger devastation from Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans and much of the Gulf Coast were protected by some as exotic and unique cultural oddities and roundly condemned by others as fools who tempted fate with every breath and got what they deserved. Outsiders, and even some insiders, argued that whole expanses of the city, somewhat randomly, should not be rebuilt but allowed to return to cypress swampland and natural selection. ACORN was accused at one point of “reckless endangerment” for joining our membership in fighting for the “right to return” to their homes and communities, when some felt they should be forced to seek high ground.
Earlier I predicted that one positive outcome to this terrible Sandy tragedy, since it occurred in New York City and the East Coast heartland of opinion and policy, might be discussion and debate about realistic policy and solutions for communities at the blunt edge of the collective climate change catastrophe. Michael Kimmelman in his column in the New York Times entered the debate today in an interesting, though ultimately unsatisfactory way.
Kimmelman makes several points about dealing with the impact of the New York City disaster. He believes “business as usual,” should not be the default mode, and criticizes politicians including President Obama for promising to help people rebuild. He notes that in a democracy confronting a disaster that there are important issues of equity that have to be addressed, including potentially why gazillions will be spent protecting businesses in lower Manhattan Island and trying to bar rebuilding in the Far Rockaways, some parts of Staten Island, and other barrier locations.
This sort of conversation is a third rail of American politics, so it’s no wonder all presidents promise to rebuild and stick taxpayers with the tab. That billions of dollars may end up being spent to protect businesses in Lower Manhattan while old, working-class communities on the waterfronts of Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island most likely won’t get the same protection flies in the face of ideas about social justice, and about New York City, with its open-armed self-image as a capital of diversity. But the decisions ahead come down to nature and numbers, to density, economics and geology. Our relationship to the water can’t stay the same, and at the same time the city is not worth saving if it sacrifices its principles and humanity. So the real test post-Sandy will be negotiating between the two.
At the same time that Kimmelman seems to “get it,” he veers wildly off the road in crediting anti-democratic formations, think China, and then read the recent article on railway construction in The New Yorker:
Our election cycle tends to thwart infrastructural improvements that can take decades and don’t provide short-term ribbon-cutting payoffs for politicians, which is why it’s a wry commonplace among engineers and architects that autocratic regimes make the most aggressive builders of massive projects.
And, then after such a good start at recognizing the issues, even raising the right question about whether or not in dealing with climate change we can “accomplish this in time and fairly?,” he veers dangerously and nostalgically towards Robert Moses, who epitomized autocratic and undemocratic development in a democracy! He finishes by walking away from the very questions he asks:
Robert Caro wrote in the 1970s that Moses “bent the democratic processes of the city to his own ends to build public works,” albeit “left to themselves, these processes proved unequal to the building required.” “The problem of constructing large-scale public works in a crowded urban setting,” Mr. Caro added, “is one which democracy has not yet solved.” And it still hasn’t.
What a complete barrel of bull we end up with in this short essay. Hardly reaches any standard of hope for a good policy outcome, including both citing Caro for belling the cat and then rationalizing the “by any means necessary” rationalizations of all developers and self-proclaimed harbingers of “progress.”
And, you wonder why liberals get a bad name? It’s because they understand the questions fully, and then run from the logic of their answers!
Why not embrace full equity, once you acknowledge the issue? Part of equity is realizing from the beginning that resources are unequal therefore solutions will be inadequate unless the root imbalances are leveled. In New Orleans to call for moving everyone out of the Lower 9th Ward (ignoring the blatant racism for a minute that was involved) to “higher ground,” and not reckoning with the fact that higher ground had suddenly achieved premium pricing and no one was talking about covering the bills to achieve this goal, effectively ended the conversation. When we traveled to Tokyo and walked on areas a dozen or more feet below sea level and saw massive locks and super-levees, it was impossible to ignore that the astronomical values of land in Tokyo rationalized the investment in real protection. Kimmelman both argues that money is not the problem, and that residents of endangered areas have to embrace “moral hazard,” as the bankers call it for other people rather than themselves, and accept the fact of cyclical destruction and rebuilding.
Why in a democracy does it not occur that if you want to move people out of danger you have to not only provide the full resources to do so, but create incentives and equity in the relocation? If working class communities like living by the water, why in the name of “civic unity” are they not moved to safer areas near the water? The answer is partially that it is more expensive and that these areas are too often enclaves of the rich, so we’re dealing with the “not in my backyard” phenomena. But, either way, moral hazard is a definition in these times of inequity. Housing projects are homes as well, but sometimes tenants embrace moving if they are really getting better and safer housing.
Thank goodness we have some democratic norms still to force business to be “as usual” until there is a full recognition that equity must be achieved. Kimmelman proves that the right questions are starting to be asked, but also that we have a long way before we’re still willing to grapple with real answers and humane, democratic public policies.