Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Climate Transience and the New Disaster Capitalism

Last week's floods in Calgary, last year's hurricane in New York City - these events have reminded us that the rich, industrialized, global cities of the world are not immune to the serious dangers of natural disasters. In the wake of intensifying severe weather at the hands of climate change, this does not bode well for the residents of the 'Global North' - who still largely believe (naively) that vulnerabilities to climate change lie mostly in the 'Global South'.

There has indeed developed a rich literature on climate vulnerability in the Global South, and much of this literature focuses in on the likelihood of forced migration due to environmental change. Desertification is expected to lead to masses of 'climate refugees'; Rising sea levels to masses of inland migrations. The migration of human settlements at the hands of environmental change is nothing new - it has in fact been a defining feature of our very species, an adaptability feature which has helped us evolve and survive. One thing that IS new is that the severity of climatic change, combined with the extent of human settlement and population on the Earth, is causing a whole new dimension of what I would call "climate transience" - the idea that we humans are being forced to adopt ever more mobile, temporary - even transient - understandings of the places we call home, as a result of climate change.

Since the industrial revolution many in the 'Global North' have thrown such understandings of impermanence in the trash. we seem to have developed a particular spatial fixity that is perhaps somewhat uncharacteristic of homo sapiens in the broader history of our species. Environmental change has long been a leading factor in the impetus for human migration. Even after the development of sedentary societies, the slow and steady winds of environmental change were insurmountable by even the most developed societies (many of which now exist only in ruin - like former empires in the Sahel, etc). But after the industrial revolution - perhaps coinciding with the Anthropocene - our belief in the ability to conquer nature has given rise to a stubbornness about, well, "moving" - even just moving out of the way, on a temporary basis.

The southeastern U.S. gets bombarded with ever-intensifying hurricanes and tornadoes on an annual basis. Yet there is a real sense that the answer has thus far been not moving elsewhere, to avoid the damage, but rather staying put! We have people refusing evacuation orders in Calgary and previously in the New York City area during Hurricane Sandy, choosing instead a "nature-ain't-telling-me-what-
to-do" attitude. In a historical sense, that is new, and perhaps indicative of a certain modernist human arrogance about nature.
My sense is that with the intensification of climate change, the intensification of severe and crazy weather, we'll have to adapt a more compromising attitude about permanent sedentarism. Yet what this really means, is the emergence of a new kind of 'disaster capitalism'. Already we are witnessing the development of new markets for for transient populations, evading the incoming storms/floods/heat waves/droughts/tornado seasons, not to mention new markets for the now-ubiquitous post-disaster 'clean up'. What's unfortunate about this situation is that our societies will opt for new mobilities and new markets rather than confront the real problem contributing to climate change in the first place - our energy overconsumption problems.

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