Extreme, Lonely Cities
A Dual Book Review
By Nathan Albright
Image courtesy of Verso Books
“In 2007 humanity became a predominantly city-dwelling species.” To understand the global environmental crisis we currently face, writes Ashley Dawson, professor of English at the City University of New York, we must look to the city. In his new book, Extreme Cities: The Perils and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change, Dawson examines the relationship between the world’s largest cities – nearly all of which are situated immediately adjacent to large bodies of water – and Earth’s rapidly changing climate which threatens to raise sea levels by several meters over the coming years.
Extreme Cities leads with a series of dumbfounding facts and statistics. Based on the amount of carbon already in the atmosphere, climate scientists believe that 70-80 feet of gradual sea level rise is inevitable, and expect around 6 feet of ocean level rise by 2100 – enough to submerge the majority of south Florida. Global warming is already dislocating millions of people each year: according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, 19.2 million people from 115 countries were displaced by extreme weather linked to climate change in 2015, “more than twice the number who fled conflict and violence.” Despite the overwhelming trend, “no international convention currently recognizes the needs and rights of climate refugees.”
Cities, where most of the displaced are likely to migrate, are responsible for the majority of the world’s carbon emissions. In fact, heating and cooling urban environments accounts for 35-45% of all carbon emissions while urban industry and transportation adds an additional 35-40%. Yet cities remain a blind spot for most climate scientists who tend to “statistically adjust data collected from urban weather stations when they seek to measure global temperature fluctuations,” leading to a dramatic underestimation of warming in the actual places where most people live. This oversight, asserts Dawson, is consistent with an environmental movement that has historically failed to recognize cities as inextricably part of nature – as places where “nature is metabolized.”
Much of Dawson’s research centers on his home city, New York, which serves as his case study. With its vulnerability to rising oceans – “520 miles of coastline—the most of any city in America” – and yawning inequalities – “twenty-four percent of the apartments in New York are not used as primary residences” while tens of thousands of New Yorkers live in shelters or on the streets – New York mirrors a global pattern in which the individuals least responsible for climate change are also those most vulnerable to its effects. When Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012, flooding seventeen percent of the city’s landmass (several times the area of the Federal Emergency Management Associations’ 100-year flood maps), the majority of storm surge victims were “low-income renters, with incomes averaging $18,000 a year.” In total, 776,000 people across several states were displaced by the storm.
Dawson writes about the growing frequency of extreme weather events like Sandy and how cities around the world are responding. Jakarta, the world’s most quickly sinking metropolis, is planning to build a 40 billion dollar sea wall that will stand 80 feet high and 25 miles long. In New York, similar projects are being proposed in the name of resilience including a hurricane barrier stretching across Jamaica Bay and a ten-mile long, 16-foot storm surge barrier that would ring south Manhattan. Given that these projects would respectively protect the Financial District in lower Manhattan and John F. Kennedy International Airport in Queens while worsening ecological conditions in Jamaica Bay and diverting storm surge waters to lower-income communities of color in neighborhoods like Red Hook, Dawson asks “whose resilience?”
Even the resiliency projects that Dawson recognizes as the most “radical and innovative” don’t win his approval. Living Breakwaters is a coastal protection project which sees “human and non-human actors as enmeshed in complex, fluid networks,” in a kind of “new culture-nature continuum.” The breakwaters built off the coast of Staten Island are made of recycled glass and concrete and double as oyster beds designed to “build up biogenically in parallel with future sea level rise.” While Dawson acknowledges the design’s “many strengths,” he warns that it’s “likely to be plagued by a number of problems that illuminate the deeper contradictions” involved. Namely that emerging studies (most of which have been published only within the past four years) have shown the world’s oceans to be rapidly acidifying in response to carbon emissions, a process that is already quickly depleting oyster populations and may soon produce unlivable conditions for much ocean life.
In many ways, this is Dawson’s central concern: myths of cities made resilient through technological mastery are distracting us from how truly dire our situation has become. Local industrial projects designed to adapt to a changing climate are too little too late, especially if we continue to recklessly add carbon to the Earth’s atmosphere. “There can be no sugarcoating the incipient crisis,” writes Dawson, “we face a baleful collective reckoning in the coming decades, when climate change, the disruption and potential collapse of global industrial agriculture, dwindling freshwater supplies, ocean acidification, mass species extinction, and ongoing planetary urbanization will provoke unforeseeable disruptions and transformations.” We are in many ways too late to turn back some devastating ecological consequences that may soon make many of the world’s most populous cities uninhabitable. What then should city dwellers do?
While Dawson grapples with the tumultuous forces threatening to upend urban centers as we know them and asks how we might turn intractable ecological and political tides, Olivia Laing asks a very different question: what does it feel like to live in a city? First and foremost, she writes, it can be lonely.
In her book The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, Laing writes about her own experience of living alone in New York City. She explores the “blind spots of others’ existences,” the “uneasy combination of separation and exposure” as one navigates an “inability, for one reason or another, to find as much intimacy as is desired.” Her personal experiences are colored with biographies of others, mostly visual artists, who have known the special kind of loneliness one often finds in a city. The pleasant combination of personal memoir, art criticism and meandering reflections on life gives The Lonely City the feeling of a late night walk to nowhere in particular.
Some of the book’s most powerful moments are attributable to Laing’s willingness to make herself intimately vulnerable to her readers. “If I could have put what I was feeling into words,” she writes of her own experience of loneliness, “the words would have been an infant’s wail: I don’t want to be alone. I want someone to want me. I’m lonely. I’m scared. I need to be loved, to be touched, to be held.” Despite what may seem like a glum topic, her meditation on loneliness is surprisingly warm and oriented toward growth. “Many marvelous things have emerged from the lonely city,” she writes, “things forged in loneliness, but also things that function to redeem it.”
Laing loosely weaves together stories and works of art that embody this kind of redemptive solitude, more through motifs than narrative or structure. Zoe Leonard, for instance, in her art installation Strange Fruit (for David), sewed back together the empty skins of various fruits in memory of her friend and fellow activist David Wojnarowicz who had died after a public battle with AIDS during which he fiercely criticized the US government for its neglect of the LGBT population throughout the epidemic. Laing writes, “a sutured orange, a banana wound absurdly with string – it is hard not to feel a tug of emotion, both in response to the damage and to the inadequate, attentive, hopeful, stubborn work of mending that had been done to them, stitch by stitch.”
In this instance, the motif Laing chooses is string: thought by psychoanalysts to be associated with “a terror of separation” and a desire to regain contact with those one has lost. Laing considers how string plays into the lives of other artists like Andy Warhol who, after a series of serious operations felt he was held together by string, or Henry Darger who wrote emotionally in his journal about his intense frustration with trying to untangle balls of yarn he had saved.
Darger is maybe the most fascinating of the artists Laing profiles. Completely unknown in his own lifetime, Darger was a janitor most of his adult life. After a traumatic and tragic childhood in which he had been passed from one abusive, impersonal institution to another, Darger lived in total isolation. When he reluctantly gave up his room to move to hospice at the age of eighty, “it was found to be stuffed with hundreds of exquisite and disturbing paintings, work he’d apparently never shown to another human being.” Also found was a 15,145 page manuscript describing an imaginary land Darger referred to as the “Realms of the Unreal,” the same “realms” shown in most of his paintings. The manuscript tells the story of a planet of young girls who are under attack by horrifically violent, ruthless men, and the paintings depict scenes of infinite cruelty. Laing acknowledges that Darger is a controversial figure – his unwillingness to discuss the work has left it open to varied, often condemnatory interpretations – but she sees Darger working through his own traumatic childhood, placing the heroes of his universe at odds with the kinds of forces that he felt plagued him in life. There is, underneath the disturbing images of violence, a heavy spirit longing for utopia, for a realm where children are free to live as they please in a world untainted by violence, where human connection is not so complicated.
Before the reader has a chance to pass judgment on such a forgiving interpretation of Darger’s work, Laing reminds us of our own fraught attempts to grapple with the violence of the world. Again showing the power of vulnerability, she takes us inside a brutally brutally honest personal account of wasting time on the Internet: “reading about hoarding or torture or true crime or the iniquities of the state … a child’s bloodied body on the sand: images that generated emotion, overlapping the pointless, the appalling and the desirable. What did I want? … to click and click and click until my synapses exploded … to overwhelm any creeping anxious sense of who I actually was, to annihilate my feelings … I wandered around the personal ads on Craigslist in just the same way that I wandered around the delis on Eighth Avenue, gazing blankly into the lit racks of sushi, yoghurt, ice cream, Blue Moon and Brooklyn beer.”
“Is it a coincidence,” Laing wonders, “that computers achieved their dominance at just the moment that life on earth became so cataclysmically imperiled?”
Here, where the lonely city meets the extreme city, at the nexus of wasteful, homogenized consumer culture, Ashley Dawson steps in with a bit of hope: “capitalism” he observes, “no longer seems the only imaginable future.” The same powerful forces of alienation that Laing articulates in The Lonely City are responsible for the ecological crisis we find ourselves in, but they’re not the only way and they never have been. Most importantly, the crisis that we now face is forcing us to see this more clearly.
Channeling Rebecca Solnit, Dawson points to the way “disasters momentarily suspend the established order, generating fluid situations in which people often (if not always) react with empathy, care, and heroic concern for one another, rupturing the solipsism that is relentlessly encouraged by capitalist culture.”
Dawson offers an example of this kind of remarkable “window onto another way of being,” through a closer look at Occupy Sandy, which at its height was coordinating 60,000 volunteers, “mobilizing resources four times greater than the Red Cross.” Occupy Sandy was so successful that city authorities begrudgingly collaborated with many of the same Occupy activists who had, less than a year earlier, been forcibly removed from Zuccotti Park. One crucial factor that set Occupy Sandy apart from other relief efforts, suggests Dawson, was its ethos of mutual aid that saw individuals not as victims but as “capable and willing to help themselves and their neighbors to recover from the storm.”
Unfortunately, these moments of rupture from the status quo are usually short lived. What the world desperately needs is an enduring movement to challenge capitalism’s suicidal demand for perpetual growth on a finite planet. Dawson believes that climate change and the monumental challenges its promises to bring in the coming decades may offer an opportunity for a movement with the staying power we need: “a global people’s movement to challenge climate chaos.”
Dawson is made hopeful by the connections between activists from Standing Rock and Black Lives Matter, and encourages these movements to focus their efforts on cities. Cities: where we find the elite and powerful interests that must be challenged, where truly progressive battles can actually be won on a local level, and, again, where most people actually live. But most importantly, as Dawson repeatedly underscores throughout the book, urban justice and climate justice must be recognized as profoundly connected.
That hundreds of thousands and eventually millions will have to relocate in the coming decades is an established fact, the question is: on whose terms? Here we reach Dawson’s driving point: we must begin planning and fighting for a “just transition.” “The only reasonable stance toward the precarious future” he argues, “is a determination to fight for a just transition that rights the systemic wrongs of the present.” Threats of what Dawson calls “climate apartheid” are already popping up around the world, from the criminalization of refugee populations to the development of “green enclaves” like “Eko Atlantic” a safe haven off the coast of the Nigerian city of Lagos for the mega-rich, designed to withstand flooding and natural disasters.
Instead, Dawson calls for a recognition of climate debt and possible climate reparations between nations, and as the People’s Agreement of Cochabama suggests, “decolonization of the atmosphere.” “Adequate adaptation,” declares Dawson, “would command a revolution of almost mythic magnitude.” “We need to break the chains of ideology, moral apathy, and political despair,” he writes, “urban civilization and human solidarity will not endure the coming planetary crisis without a revival of aggressively utopian thought.”
As we look toward a harrowing future, we need to think not only of economic needs, but social, ecological and moral needs. We need to address inequality with “not only increased wages but also the kind of reduced working hours that would free up time for building community.”
Dawson’s plea for utopian imagination recalls Darger’s realms of the unreal. In his “Declaration of Child Independence,” Darger enumerates the rights he had always longed for: “to play, to be happy, and to dream, the right to normal sleep of the night’s season, the right to an education, that we may have an equality of opportunity for developing all that are in us of mind and heart.”
From the depths of loneliness, under the full weight of urban alienation, many people have had visions of a better world. These visions, once dismissed as utopian dreams, may soon be guiding lights for our collective survival on this planet.
Nathan Albright is a Cofounding Editor at the The Flood.