Climate Change: A Moment of Truth

Climate ChangeMartin Rowe

A couple of weeks ago, members of Brighter Green attended the Sustainable Energy for All Forum (SE4All) at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.  Like many parts of the New York City shoreline, the Navy Yard has been undergoing considerable (re)development—not only in terms of converting old warehouses or brownfield sites into high-priced condominiums or tech start-ups, but also in industry (a new loading dock/pier was being built outside the Duggal Greenhouse, where the Forum was staged).

As a colleague and I waited at the entryway to the Greenhouse for the bus to take us back to the subway station, we fell into conversation with a man standing by a heat vent (it was a chilly morning). His name was Antoine Faye and he is Chief Resilience Officer for Dakar, the capital of Senegal in West Africa. He was set to go to Manhattan to meet with his counterpart, Daniel Zarilli. Both New York City and Dakar are part of the 100 Resilient Cities initiative, pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation. The aim of the initiative is for major urban centers to develop strategies to cope with the effects of climate change over the next several decades.

Mr. Faye was in a gloomy mood. His appointment, he said, was only for two years, during which time he had to forge a viable future for Dakar, which (like many cities in the developing world) was growing rapidly as populations moved from climate-stressed rural areas into informal settlements nearby in search of work and a livelihood. He told us that one of his major tasks was to figure out how to relocate inland tens of thousands of people from low-lying regions along the shoreline. This was difficult as institutions like the university were already packed with four times the number of people they were built for. He mordantly noted that a further influx of still more unemployed young men would only lead to trouble. Even more depressing from his point of view, he added, was that even were he to come up with a plan for the city, it could simply sit in a drawer and not be implemented precisely because it required forced removal of populations, unemployment, and the kind of tough decisions that not only could end someone’s time in office but throw the entire country into political turmoil.

As he looked out at the bustling Navy Yard, Mr. Faye observed that resilience for a city like New York was a much easier prospect. It had political structures, a private sector, and a civil society that might support the kinds of systemic changes that would enable a city to cope with a meter or so of sea-level rise. (I kept my mouth shut.) Dakar did not, he observed, and so would have to cede part of its land to the sea—perhaps those very areas that formed the more desirable parts of town.

At that point, our bus arrived and we parted ways, but not before my colleague and I had been given much food for thought. It would, indeed, be comforting to believe that New York City’s plans for the next century offer a genuinely resourceful (in both senses of the word) means of responding to climate change (especially in low-lying areas of the Rockaways, Staten Island, lower Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens that were most affected by Superstorm Sandy). But it’s only human to retain a connection to the sea, to want to rebuild in the same spot you’ve always lived, and to defy nature and the odds: that’s no different in Dumbo or Dakar.

It’s an irony that SE4All took place in industrial Brooklyn—a place that for decades (like so much of New York City’s shoreline) was a place that the well-to-do and respectable avoided. As On the Waterfront or Last Exit to Brooklyn attest, for much of the twentieth century, the harbor and industrial areas were locations where organized crime, violence, prostitution, and the bodies ended up. When NYC developer Robert Moses ringed Manhattan and other boroughs with roads, he reinforced the separation of the shore from the interior, the poor from the rich. Now the shore is being reclaimed for the wealthy—even as it is threatened once again by violence and disruption, this time from climate change.

One final observation: SE4All serves as a forum for philanthropists, investors, entrepreneurs, policymakers, and civil society activists to collaborate on meeting the energy needs of the world’s populations while also reducing our carbon footprint to levels in the timeframe agreed upon by the United Nations. Despite the positive vibes and can-do spirit emanating from the participants on the panels, the globe is failing to meet any of the goals allotted.  And even were renewables to become even cheaper and more widely available, and even if the grid delivery systems and storage capacities improved, and even if governments set a carbon price that pushed the market further away from fossil fuels, and even if developing countries leapfrogged old-school industrialized development based on extraction and the externalization of environmental costs—even if all this happened, it still wouldn’t obviate the terrible decisions that face Dakar now and New York City in the future. That will require the kind of political leadership, civil society engagement, long-term thinking, and realignment of values of what it means to live well that we are woefully ill-equipped for.

Under such circumstances, “resilience” acquires an altogether deeper psychological and even moral underpinning than building climate-surge barriers or phasing in our withdrawal from the coast. It means basing our decisions on equity and shared sacrifice, closing the gap between rich and poor and learning to live with uncertainty and scarcity. To that extent, the Vegan America Project can only offer gestures of support and solidarity, recognizing (humbly) that dietary and lifestyle change will only take all of us (human or otherwise) so far. Much of the remainder is, because of our behavior, now out of our hands.

Insectionality

Origins and Ideas IconMartin Rowe

Intersectionality is a term first coined by critical race theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw to describe the linkages between race, class, and gender when applied to the bodies of woman of color. Crenshaw’s term has been widely adopted by ecofeminist theorists such as Carol J. Adams, pattrice jones, Greta Gaard, and Lori Gruen partly to emphasize the social justice component of a theory that critiques binaries where traditionally masculine-identified tropes are arraigned on one side and feminine-defined ones on the other (culture v. nature, human v. animal, mind v. matter, reason v. emotion, etc.), with value judgments about the worth of either falling into depressingly familiar patterns of the former being more “important” than the latter. It should be added that the cooptation or adoption of intersectionality is open to critique, from writers such as Aph and Syl Ko, and other black vegans.

Intersectionality offers a number of critical advantages to an analysis of Vegan America. First, it grapples with the political realities of a United States that struggles with endemic racism, systemic poverty, and economic and political isolation. Neither the creative destruction of the marketplace nor the levers of government and public policy are likely to get to the root of these profound, perhaps ontogenetic realities for the U.S. Intersectionality forces us to acknowledge that a vegan America might not be worthy of the name if it still involves backbreaking work in the fields for immigrant and poor communities, or where people do not have enough (nutritious) food to eat, or where there are few jobs, scarce opportunities, and social exclusion for those who are, or do not feel themselves to be, included within the shiny new “vegan” economy.

Secondly, intersectionality points us toward a model not simply of substituting vegan products for those made from animals and continuing on our consumptive way. How, we might ask, would a vegan America look if the long-deferred promise made to freed Americans after the Civil War of “40 acres and a mule” is recalibrated to acknowledge the bondage that both sets of beings have been subject to and therefore provides genuine and meaningful reparation for both? How might a vegan America reimagine its relationship with the buffalo and First Nations and descendants of both whose land was colonized and expropriated? And how might we foster a vegan America so that those who populate its territories are not merely no longer exploited, but that, collectively, we who brought about such destruction restore and replenish those biotic and human communities and make all of us richer, more diverse, and surrounded by more life than before?

Thirdly, intersectionality presents a profound challenge to the entire Vegan America Project. It asks us to remember that rapid social change, no matter how benign it might seem to those of us who benefit most immediately from it, in and of itself can disadvantage communities who are not socially, materially, or politically connected to agents of that change, and are not able to adapt to or benefit from those changes. Consider the industries, such as coal and oil, that will need to no longer exist if we are to make substantial cuts in fossil-fuel extraction. Those of us fortunate enough not to have to work in these professions may find it perverse that communities fight to keep these dirty, dangerous, and life-shortening jobs; we might say the same about communities that rely on prisons for jobs in their rural areas, or polluting industries or factory farms in their towns.

It’s true that those who are victims of the poisons, pollutants, and other negative effects may feel they have no power to determine their futures and no means to resist corporations siting their operations in their region. But a job and a profession offer more than a paycheck to individuals; they provide genuine pride and familial and regional continuity for many. Where sustainable human, financial, and natural capital is scarce, social and economic change is likely to be much scarier and more destabilizing—whether you’re in the coalfields of West Virginia or the brownfields of the South Bronx. The anxieties of economic displacement amid under-resourced communities who’ve not been invested in for generations are neither trivial nor dismissible. “We”—those of us with agency, education, opportunity, power—cannot simply dismiss these people as “collateral damage” in the creative destruction of a laissez-faire economy or as backward or ignorant losers who perversely refuse to join the March of Progress.

“We” have an added incentive to make social and environmental justice a central component of our thinking about the future of the country. Climate change will affect different regions differently. Vulnerable, isolated, and impoverished communities—whether in rural areas devastated by drought or superstorms or in cities prone to flooding—will likely lack the means to respond to any catastrophes that may befall them. We’ve already encountered this reality in New Orleans, following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and in parts of New York City, following Superstorm Sandy in 2012. The social, financial, and political costs of ignoring the multiple vulnerabilities of disadvantaged communities are likely to be even greater in years to come.

From its beginnings, industrialization has disrupted rural, settled communities; torn up local, artisanal industries; atomized and deskilled labor; privatized public lands; and placed or disposed of toxins among poor or marginalized peoples. The Environmental Justice movement has long recognized this reality, and a vegan America that simply forgets or ignores the needs and demands of such communities will either fail or not be worthy of the name.

I’m not alone in seeing a commitment to reimagining a way forward for both challenged urban communities and isolated rural communities as a way to knit together a nation where, as Howard Zinn writes in A People’s History of the United States, the working class—perceived as a threat by the landowning class—was deliberately divided along racial lines, in order to ensure that white indentured workers and black slaves didn’t find common cause in the exploitation of their labor. You don’t have to be a Marxist to recognize that the challenges that face communities challenged by poor health outcomes, low wages, and without the social or technical skills to thrive in a technological economy, living in locations that have been deindustrialized and where investment has fled or is stagnant require a new approach.