Category: climate change
JULIE GUTHMAN talks about strawberries, soil fumigants, pathogenic fungi, farmers, and scientists — a dynamic more-than-human assemblage that has remade California agriculture. Her rigorous and expansive study warns against the technoscientific fix, as well as the challenges of acknowledging that there is no easy way out.
Guthman is a geographer and social scientist who has written extensively about California farms. She is professor of Social Sciences at University of California Santa Cruz and a Guggenheim fellow.
Wilted: Pathogens, Chemicals, and the Fragile Future of the Strawberry Industry (UC Press, 2019)
Agrarian Dreams: The Paradox of Organic Farming in California, 2nd Edition (UC Press, 2014)
Weighing In: Obesity, Food Justice, and the Limits of Capitalism (UC Press, 2011)
Julie: Thank you so much for having me on your podcast. I’ve been researching and writing on food and agriculture for over two decades now. And I would say most of my work is about examining the conditions of possibility for food and agricultural transformation. This book and my first book on organics [Agrarian Dreams: The Paradox of Organic Farming in California, UC Press 2014], are very much grounded in California’s agrarian histories. So I’m also kind of very California-focused geographer.
Elaine: What brought you to California? The way you write about California, it’s a very passionate but also deep and substantive analysis of what happens in California landscapes. How did you get to do this work?
Julie: I’m a Californian! I’ve lived in California my entire life. I can’t say I’ve traveled to every corner of California, but I know the state extremely well. It’s interesting because after I completed my undergraduate degree at UC Santa Cruz, I went on to be an organizer in California and I was doing a lot of organizing in California, Central Valley. So I really got to know that area and did some fundraising more around the Bay Area. But we also did campaigns in Santa Barbara County. And that was a new way of kind of knowing the state I had grown up in. And then when I went back to go to graduate school for a Ph.D. in Geography, I really did not imagine I would be working in California. I had an idea that I was going to be working in Nepal and I had a very different idea of a project before I arrived at UC Berkeley to get my Ph.D. But a lot of things happened including having a young baby and I had to refocus. And I took a seminar with my advisor on agrifood transformation. This was in the mid-90s and there was a whole slew of work coming out on the political economy of food and agriculture, kind of revisiting Kautskey’s classic agrarian question on how agriculture is not necessarily amenable to being capitalized, how capital moves in and around the farm. So this stuff was very formative for me. I ended up doing a dissertation on the organic sector in California, really based in agrarian political economy. And it was so interesting going back to some of the same areas in which I had organized. So I interviewed organic growers throughout the state and I divided it into something like nine different regions. And so I had a new way of knowing this. I do a lot of recreational travel in California and I feel like I know the state very well. And one of my, one of my committee members as a PhD student is also very much a California geographer. I was also very influenced by him.
It turns out there was a lot of different histories of those different regions. I mean they all, all these regions came into production at different times under different circumstances. They had different sorts of kind of land-holding structures, sometimes different labor relationships, certainly different crop specializations, which has been true of California agriculture. The different regions are very much divided by crop specializations. And so that was really significant for the way my dissertation and book on organics turned out because one of the things I found was that California’s agrarian histories have very much influenced the way that organic was playing out. And so organics in California had very different regional styles that reflected those longer histories.
Elaine: Let’s turn to your latest book. Your latest book is Wilted Pathogens, Chemicals and the Fragile Future of the Strawberry Industry from UC Press just out in 2019. It begins with wilted strawberries in California farms, repair through fumigation with synthetic agrochemicals, particularly methyl bromide, the degraded soils, the broken bodies and the novel ecologies that emerge. It’s an expansive, impressive and extraordinary book. One of my favorite books. How did you come to write this book?
Julie: First of all, thank you for that, that was really kind and I appreciate it. Right now, I love the book too! The book started out with a very different set of questions. Really, since I arrived at UC Santa Cruz as a professor, what I’ve mainly been following is alternative food movements, the ways in which folks are organizing and trying to change food systems. So I follow the foodies and their imaginations of new ways of producing and consuming and distributing food. And one of my critiques has been that the food movement has been too focused on building alternatives and not focused on undermining some of the worst practices of industrial agriculture.
Starting around 2010ish, there was a major regulatory battle over a chemical called methyl iodide. Methyl iodide was developed and licensed to replace methyl bromide in strawberry production and methyl bromide along with a third chemical called chloropicrin has long been used in strawberry production in California and other crops. These were really central to strawberries as a way to control weeds and nematodes and most importantly, soil-borne disease. The combination of chloropicrin and methyl bromide together allowed the strawberry industry to become so productive and grow and thrive and become the behemoth it is today. Methyl bromide is an ozone-depleting chemical. And a couple of years after the Montreal Protocol of ozone-depleting substances was agreed on as an international treaty in the late 1990s, methyl bromide was designated as something that was going to be banned or phased out. The U.S. government fought hard against that phaseout really on behalf of the strawberry industry because methyl bromide has been so crucial for the strawberry industry to control the pathogens and weeds and nematodes. But after a lot of stalling, the industry started to take seriously that methyl bromide was going to be taken away. Enter methyl iodide as this replacement chemical that has some of the same qualities of methyl bromide, but would not dissipate into the upper atmosphere like methyl bromide so it wouldn’t deplete the ozone. So it was introduced to replace methyl bromide, but there was a huge regulatory battle. And one of the reasons is because it doesn’t dissipate into the atmosphere. Any drift from the chemical would stay around and therefore affect farm workers and neighboring communities. So it was a big battle over the chemical. It’s a pretty toxic chemical. It’s even used to induce cancer in laboratory rats and it’s associated with thyroid disorders and miscarriages and all sorts of things. So I was really intrigued by this regulatory battle because for the first time I could remember that foodies, were aligning with environmental organizations and anti-pesticide regulations and public health people and farm workers to combat the chemical.
I first wrote a grant to research, conduct research on what the regulatory debate was around methyl iodide. Around the time I was keeping my eye on methyl iodide, I was also writing, doing some work with Becky Mansfield on epigenetics and the questions of intergenerational harm from environmental toxicants. So I was really curious to know if concern with the future of farm workers, their progeny, the possibility that their progeny might be affected by methyl iodide, I was curious to see if that had entered the regulatory debates. That was kind of one of the original research questions. It turns out that it wasn’t. I went on to do a research project about how growers were contending with the phase out of methyl bromide and about the regulatory debates after methyl iodide. And what happened is right after I had submitted a proposal to look at methyl iodide battles, it was actually taken off the market because of all the activism around it. So I had, I got partial funding, and then I had to kind of rejig my research question. So the project became about both the regulatory debate and what growers were going to do without methyl bromide.
So it was a very different project. It was a project about regulatory politics. It was about growers’ concerns about how they were going to function. In conducting that research, I just saw all these connectivities among different kind of elements of the strawberry production system. One of my peripheral research questions at the time of conducting this was, I wanted to pay attention to the qualities of the chemicals and if they were different and what that meant. But it really wasn’t only about the chemicals. It was about the plants. And the soil and the climate and so much else. And I started to see these strong connectivities among different pieces of the strawberry production system.
Elaine: In your book you talk about repair. Agricultural scientists were trying to repair the soil. Growers were trying to find solutions and fumigation was the answer. But in a way that cure became the problem and you call it, is it “iatrogenic”?
Julie: Iatrogenic harm, right. I think it’s important to think about fumigation in terms of the history of the strawberry industry. The strawberry industry was just kind of a—it wasn’t an industry, you know, strawberries were a specialty crop in California. There was some experimentation in strawberry farms in the late part of the 19th century, but by the early part of the 20th century, there starts to be more land devoted to strawberry production. Not a whole lot. It was hard to develop markets. The strawberries weren’t bred to last forever and ship far. But starting in the 1920s and 30s, strawberry growers started to see a lot of problems with blight and all sorts of diseases. They called them things like yellows and browns to describe the kind of symptoms but many of the plants were wilting and dying. And so they called on the University of California to help out, to figure out what was afflicting the strawberry fields and to help out with fixing them.
University of California jumped in. The Department of Plant Pathology at UC Berkeley became very active. First, they identified some of the diseases and one of the main ones was from the Verticillium family. Verticillium has many different subspecies and it’s widespread throughout the world. So they identified what it was and then they started giving farmers all sorts of advice about what to do, but none of it really worked. And then they started experimenting in the 1950s with using chemicals for below-ground fumigation and that’s how they hit upon chloropicrin. They actually hit upon chloropicrin first before methyl bromide as a way to control the diseases. Chloropicrin was expensive to produce at the time and then they found that methyl bromide really works by pushing –it’s highly gaseous, so it pushes the material through the soil. So together these things really worked.
So that was repair for the industry. The reason I focused on repair—and I’m drawing on the work of Christopher Henke—he makes this really important point that seems to be really true for the strawberry industry, is that university scientists really need to please their clientele. But the tools they can offer tend to be those that produce more productivity. And some of the problems that growers face are not problems with productivity. They’re problems with marketing because they have too much productivity. But university scientists aren’t particularly good at fixing those. I mean, growers still want productivity. I say, why do you want productivity when you’re always complaining about low prices? And it’s basically because if they don’t plant the highest producing strawberry, the guy down the road will.
Just to wrap up, the reason I’m using repair is to bring focus to the work of university scientists trying to aid the industry. That’s their job. And they want to please their clientele, but they could only work in certain areas. And then there’s the separate issue that university scientists are very, very narrowly disciplined. And sometimes these are really complex problems.
Elaine: Most analyses will leave it at that and say these are unintended consequences in the shift to agrochemicals. Strawberries being, you write the most agrochemical intensive industry, which was shocking…
Julie: Yeah, they are. Although what’s interesting is there’s an environmental working group that tracks the dirty dozen and strawberries are always at the top of the top of their dirty dozen. The dirty dozen measures pesticide residues and fumigants don’t cause residues cause fumigants are used pre-plant [so they don’t show up.] So they don’t even show up on that list. And they’re still at the top.
But I wanted to come back to the iatrogenic harm because I think that’s a really important point. To return to this issue of self-harm, fumigation became an easy fix for the strawberry industry. One important thing that fumigation allowed is for growers to plant strawberries on the same block year after year without having to rotate with other crops. So that itself made it highly productive. What I neglected to say is one of the things that the University of California started doing was breeding for disease resistance and that started happening in the 1940s with mild success. But once you started fumigating they couldn’t, they no longer had to worry about breeding for disease resistance. So they started breeding for all sorts of other qualities including shippability, firmness —at the time, frozen strawberries were really important because in the 50s and 60s, people were eating a lot of processed canned and frozen food and so they wanted strawberries that would freeze well and they were really breeding for productivity.
The point is that once you have fumigation, you can neglect the ecology of what was causing soil disease. One really important thing they bred for is longevity on the season. They had day-neutral varieties that would last throughout the summer. And then they have what are called short-day varieties that you can grow them in winter when the days are shorter. And so that really extended the strawberry season. So there’s somewhere in California, 10 or 11 months a year, there are strawberries growing because of breeding for this kind of way to extend seasons. So all these practices followed on fumigation, allowing neglect of the ecology of soil disease. And then what happens is methyl bromide is taken away, it’s phased out. Methyl iodide never gets allowed to be used. It was like okay to use for one year and hardly anybody adopted it. And so growers started using chloropicrin—sometimes only chloropicrin, sometimes chloropicrin with another chemical or other chemicals—and found it not to be as effective. And new pathogens started appearing in the field, particularly two. One is Fusarium oxysporum with a strawberry variant, which is the same genus as Panama disease. And then the other was Macrophomina phaseolina, which apparently is much harder to deal with than Fusarium. So these are new pathogens. They started appearing right when growers started phasing out their use of methyl bromide. And the industry has been ill-equipped to address these pathogens because they’ve relied so heavily on a very simple solution.
Elaine: You write about something you call a “strawberry assemblage” and “more-than-human assemblage,” and the book really introduces a whole cast of characters. You methodically go through this list. So there’s the fungus Verticillium dahliae. You have the strawberry plants and hybrid plant breeders, land and soil. You have cheap labor and bodies without rights. Then you have the growers, the shippers, the agricultural scientists, and you also have the public universities and particularly University of California. So you don’t just say: there are the multispecies relationships and there are the humans. You, in a very nuanced way, disentangle a whole web of relationships.
Can you tell us about some of these methods, how you went about unpacking this assemblage? It’s what I love about the book and I also read that whole list almost in the order that you write about them in the book. They’re all given particular kind of agency and a certain capacity that they gain because they encounter the others in that web. Everything is emerging; everything is dynamic. It’s a really beautiful way of looking at a really complex situation.
Julie: Thank you.
Elaine: How did you unpack this assemblage?
Julie: Yeah, I think my fantasies about what this book could do, were aspirational. I was taking very seriously work that you’ve been involved in and others, in symbiosis and relationality, in the work of Karen Barad, and not taking elements but looking at relationships. And I really wanted to look at relationships and I found that extremely difficult to actually write and talk about. And I had a hard time even getting beyond the language of elements or factors. So what I did do is I identified what I thought were some of the really important human and nonhuman actors and developed their histories and our knowledge of their histories and then showed how they’re related to each other. But I couldn’t find language to just talk about relationships. I had to talk about them as factors. So the book, the narrative arc is really around five threats to the strawberry industry, which are the pathogens; the nature of the breeding apparatus; the increased regulatory restrictions; land scarcity and cost, and disease in the soil; and then labor shortages. Those are the ones that growers complain about and those are the main threats, but then I try to weave in all these, the other kind of elements or factors that are intertwined with those and the book does try to build to show step-by-step how these things are really, really aggregated and entrenched as assemblage.
Elaine: You say a topographic approach isn’t enough and call for a topological approach. Do you find that—thinking about topologies—does that approach allow you to intervene on the one hand in current scientific and agricultural practices and on the other, make an intervention into the field of STS?
Julie: I draw on the work of Steve Hinchliffe and other geographers to make a fairly straightforward point. What they do is they argue against topographical approaches and they’re really talking about livestock practices. Their concern is that when we think of livestock diseases, we tend to think of an invader getting into a space. So that’s what they refer to as a topographical approach. And they call for the topological approach to suggest that the problem is not an invasive species, that the problem has been underneath the surface all along. But when you bring together all these elements and bring the intensities that go with industrial agriculture, the problem emerges from the intensity. And so I liked that a lot to think about the pathogens.
Now I did do some work trying to understand the origins of the three soil pathogens that are the main fungal characters in the book. And I was surprised by how little I found on their origins. And I looked pretty hard and I asked a lot of scientists, do you have much sense of the origins or do you have sense how they got here? And we know the Verticillium is widespread and I’m not in Santa Cruz right now, so I can’t point out the window and say that over there in those fields of hay, there’s probably lots of Verticillium. And Verticillium, you know, a lot of these pathogens only become a pathogen when they become a problem for agriculture. They’re fungi that exist everywhere and they only are a problem when you’re planting in a monoculture and, and they’re competing. So some of these fungi are pretty widespread anyway, and they’re around. So when do they become pathogenic? That’s a question I had. And I didn’t get very good answers. And that was significant to me because it suggests that we don’t even study these sorts of biota until they become a problem. And I did ask, I mean, how would you ever find out how old these pathogens are? And they said, well, you can do, you know, you can do genetic tracing, but no one’s even invested in that. But that becomes one of the arguments I make — we only care about them as material objects when they become a problem for plants that we’re growing for food and they only become an epistemic object when they become knowable that way.
Elaine: When they become some sort of threat is when we start to throw lots of resources into studying them. That’s one of the really generative things about thinking through assemblage: it allows you to see different species, different things not as essential beings having an essentialized characteristic but rather what happens once they encounter each other. And I love what you were talking about with intensities. So some sort of critical mass happens or there’s some tipping point. And then something becomes pathogenic.
Julie: Right. The assemblage is a way of characterizing all these elements together in these intense relationships.
Elaine: So you write also, as well as Marxist geographer David Harvey, that agriculture is different from other industries because it depends on bodies, depends on landscapes, cannot be theorized, cannot be understood, cannot be studied, cannot be undertaken without understanding this human/non-human, nature/culture together.
: It also makes thinking our way out of this agrochemical regime incredibly difficult. And you say, there’s no easy way out. You write: these landscapes are not all dead and we can’t only focus on either the ruination or the lively multi-species assemblages that come after ruination. There’s a lot at stake in figuring out what to do. There’s no off switch. So one question is, how to balance ecological damage and human livelihoods. But there’s another, I think maybe more critical question, which is, how can assemblage help us think beyond that binary?
Julie: To understand the strawberry industry’s predicament, we need to understand that there’s a lot of human and nonhuman actors at play and they’re tightly, they’re tightly related. It’s interesting because assemblage thinking has also been used to talk about the kind of contingency of groupings. That they’re so easily fallen apart. But while this particular strawberry assemblage is fragile, it’s not fleeting. Things are pretty locked into each other.
I would say that climate change is a minor actor in my book and it’s certainly not one that the strawberry industry has given a lot of focus on, but it became apparent that that was a part of this story in a couple of ways. One of the pathogens that has been strongly affecting the strawberry industry in the last two decades or decade and a half is Macrophomina phaseolina, which seems to do really well in conditions where the plant is stressed, including heat. And growers are, have been really struggling with Macrophomina infestation over the last few years. Now they attribute it to not being able to fumigate the way they want to, but it’s also because the last few years have been the hottest summers on record in California where they grow. Oh, another source of stress in the soil is salinization because strawberries are grown very close to the Pacific Coast. That’s a huge advantage of the industry. That’s the eternal spring of the Central Coast region or the South Central and Northern Central coast region where strawberries are grown, is brought by the Pacific Ocean. Any of you who have ever been to coastal California in the summer, recognize that fog rolls in every morning and it can be quite cool. We’re sitting in New Orleans right now and I’m kind of missing the natural air-conditioning of California! So I, I digress… These strawberry growing regions are also very close to the beaches and so there’s a lot of kind of saltwater intrusion and just overall salinization from aridity, particularly more in southern California. So that stresses the strawberries. So that’s a way in which global climate change may be impeding the industry. And that was significant to me because it’s not one of the things that the strawberry industry was talking about at as a threat.
I also turned to think about the Plantationocene because of work by Anna Tsing and Donna Haraway and Eben Kirksey—who have different perspectives, so I don’t want to lump them together. They talk about the damage of monocultures in terms of ecologies and humans. I think there’s not a celebration of ruination, but a kind of sense of hope in ruination. A sense that the ruins—and I think you see this most in Eben Kirksey’s work— that after ruins, there’s possibilities of multi-species flourishing. And I felt that I had a somewhat different perspective in terms of the humans because when we think about plantations, sometimes it’s easy to think of it as not populated, but strawberries are extremely labor-intensive. So they’re very populated. And it’s work. There are a lot of livelihoods there. And that’s also how the strawberry industry defends its use of fumigants. There are a lot of livelihoods at stake there. And my sense of strawberry production is, if this industry goes to ruination and it’s fragile — that’s why that’s in the book title — what’s going to emerge in the strawberry fields is not multi-species flourishing. It’s going to be suburbs. I said that in a talk at UCLA and a friend of mine who’s a planner says you shouldn’t be disparaging housing! We need low-cost housing in California! And I don’t disparage it. But it’s just not this kind of post-dystopian quasi-utopian thing. This land is very, very valuable in terms of the world we live in now. And that’s one of several threats that the strawberry industry is facing: high land values because they’re competing with suburbs for real estate.
Elaine: There’s also this worry that the kind of life that emerges are maybe the kinds of life we don’t want. We don’t really want fungal pathogens. Or you know insects in the case of rice it’s brown planthopper and southeast Asian rice fields.
Julie: Or mosquitoes.
Elaine: Yes, exactly.
Elaine: Can you take us through the process of growing strawberries? What does it look like? What does sound like? What does it smell like?
Julie: Before any strawberries are planted, growers fumigate and that’s really one of the main objects of my study is, is fumigation. There’s several different ways in which they fumigate. They don’t do it themselves. A fumigation company does it. I’ve never witnessed a fumigation. I think it’s done at night and I think it’s done under very secretive conditions. So I can’t tell you what it looks and smells like. There’s this one wonderful photographer, Sam Hodgson, who’s done some great photos of fumigation. One of them is in my book. They basically cover the fumigation workers in all sorts of protective equipment and then drive a rig through the field that injects the chemical mix into the soil. Then they cover it with plastic. And then other workers often without protective gear go and shovel dirt on the plastic to hold it down. There’s another way of fumigation called bed fumigation where they first bed up the strawberries, so they make the beds or maybe four or five feet wide and, and there’s rows in between and then there’s maybe a foot off the ground so they bed it up, cover the beds in plastic and then inject the fumigant through the drip lines of the irrigation. I would say that that bed fumigation, which uses less of the chemical is also what’s been associated with novel pathogens appearing. So workers come and puncture those plastic things and insert the strawberry plant into the ground.
There’s this whole other very complex process of propagating the plants before they’re planted. That takes place in other regions in the state. It’s a four-year process just to propagate the plants and that’s it’s own crazy world.
Elaine: Do you mean it’s a four-year process of propagating the plant? That’s not the research leading up to —
Julie: No, it’s for propagating the plant because here’s the thing, strawberries are hybrid. All strawberries are hybrids of the original hybrid that made the modern strawberry. Those little seeds on the outside of a strawberry fruit are actually little pieces of fruit. Those seeds, if you planted them, the seeds are in that fruit. But if you planted them, they would, you don’t know what you would get. So you have to clone strawberry plants from existing plant material that’s already a certain cultivar and they have to do it through this process called a meristem process, which is taking a little teeny weeny bit of the plant in sterile conditions cause it has to be clean. Strawberry plants from California are shipped all over the world and they’re still using methyl bromide in the nurseries because it has to be clean. They take a little snippet of that plant and they grow it in a little planter that never touches the ground. And then they have to propagate the plant. After they grow out the meristem, they plant it and allow the plant to produce runners and they do that over three or four years in different regions of California. They do some of that in the Central Valley where it’s very hot in the summer. Or they do it up in the far north of California where it gets very cold in October. It gets very cold, like about 22 degrees at night. And then they freeze that plant and then they ship it to the southern part of the state and the plant wakes up and says, oh it’s spring, I’ll start going crazy. So it’s a very long complicated propagation process. Three or four years. That’s before fruit growers even get a hold of it and the nursery business is actually quite separate from the fruit-growing business.
Julie: And then I guess the other part of the strawberry production process that I would draw your attention to is the harvest. The harvest I visualize best because when you drive through strawberry region, it’s just so extraordinary. There’s not a lot of acres devoted to strawberries in California, but those great areas for strawberry production are just covered in strawberries. They are low-lying plants. They are very labor-intensive. And they don’t all ripen at the same time. So the workers are going back to the field several times over. But during harvest season, which is most of the year but not everywhere at the same time, there will be long lines of cars, workers’ cars, there’ll be a couple of trucks, and the strawberry harvesters are running through the fields. You see a lot of movement. They’re running through. They’re picking. If you get up close, they’re picking like this. I’m not, can’t do it on the microphone. They’re picking very quickly using both hands. A so-called “good worker” can pick one of those crates that we see, which has 12 baskets. They pick about, I believe nine in an hour, which is extraordinary. They run and then they get it checked off at a checking station and they run back and pick some more. They’re running because they’re paid on piece rates to ensure high productivity. Now not all of them are running anymore. Some growers, because they complain of labor shortages are using some innovation to try to make workers a little bit happier rather than paying a lot more. They pay them a little bit more, but they’re using trolleys. So they’re putting the crates on a trolley, but they’re moving extremely fast. And in terms of the sounds, you often hear Norteño music playing and I do have one little clip video where you can kinda hear that.
Elaine: So it’s not mechanized at all? So with rice it’s highly mechanized, big combine harvesters. It’s impossible to do that with the strawberries because of the fruit and it’s also very time sensitive or highly perishable? What’s their window?
Julie: Well, I think in the southern regions, they’ve got to pick them within a few days of ripeness. Some growers say we need as much productivity as we can. Some growers are like, this is insane and we’re complaining about labor shortages. Why would we want more productivity when we can’t find people to pick them? And then they rot.
Oh, I should also say another image of the strawberry field is that there’s a lot of strawberries in the rows. They’re squished. And the smell is intense. We might like the smell of strawberries, but it’s kind of like the sickly sweet smell because there’s just a lot. And there are a lot of them rotting in the fields. Because different shippers have different cull rates, they have to look good. if there’s rot on them. Some want particular sizes or particular shapes. So a lot of them are culled. Some shippers, I think, cull about 30% of their berries. So there’s all this sticky stuff in between the rows.
The only real mechanization is maybe the little trolleys that aren’t really mechanized but that you can pull them through rather than run. But one of the threats to the industry that growers complain about more than anything right now is labor shortages and labor costs. Labor shortages are always a social construction. But nonetheless, I believe that there’s no question that at the rates they’re willing to pay, they’re having problems with recruiting labor and the costs are higher because California’s minimum wage is going up to $15 per hour soon. Also, agriculture’s exemption from overtime laws has just been erased. So costs are real for growers. The labor costs. There’s a lot of talk and action on robotics. Driscoll’s is putting a lot of money into it. I mean a lot of people are putting research into robotics now. I was just interviewing strawberry growers this summer. Some are claiming they’re already using robotics. I’ve not seen any in the field, and some are saying it’s 15 years off before a robot will be able to replace a worker because a robot does have to be able to detect when it’s ripe, if it’s the right shape, which maybe robot can do. Yet the robot has to detect a lot of things.
Elaine: Are there racial divisions between the grower, the picker, the shipper?
Julie: Most harvest workers are from Latin America. They’re not all Latino. There are a lot of indigenous groups that pick strawberries. Who knows the real percentages, but we can imagine that most are undocumented or unauthorized — new term. The growers, it’s interesting. The growers were traditionally at the beginning of the industry, they were white and Japanese. In the early part of the 20th century, Japanese immigrants came. They were very good truck farmers. They competed with white farmers and that was one of the impeti for the Alien Land Laws that Japanese growers weren’t able to own land. Sometimes, white growers would use Japanese families as sharecroppers at that time. Sometimes, they would lend them money, have them run their own farms or sometimes Japanese families when their children were born in the United States, they would somehow get to own farms. Of course during the internment, that all went away. But after the internment, Japanese growers, some came back into agriculture. So there’s still quite a few Japanese American growers, but most of the ones I’ve met are getting out of strawberries. They don’t have children that want to take on the business. I would guess based on extrapolating from my statistics, about 75% of growers are Latinx, which is different than it was before. And some are second or third generation Mexican-Americans and some just arrived and were former farm workers and there are really different rates of capitalization. One of the largest strawberry growers I know is Latinx, but there’s also some super low resource Latino growers as well.
Elaine: What do you mean by “low resource”?
Julie: I mean that they don’t have hardly any capital and the way they’re in business is the shippers are lending them money. Some number of them would go deeply in debt. Different shippers operate differently. There’s been quite a bit of consolidation in the shipping industry and there’s been a lot of growers that have gone out of business in the past few years. There’s about five main shippers. Driscoll’s is what your listeners will have heard of, and they’re the biggest. There’s also a Giant. Dole left the strawberry industry. There’s WellPickt, Naturipe Farms, and then some other ones that are more, more moderate or they don’t have brand names. They sell in, like in Costco or something like that. They have different arrangements, but Driscoll’s, as is most well known, does not grow any of their own strawberries. All Driscoll’s strawberries are grown on contract and are varying kinds of contracts. Like there are some that are called independent growers where they have a marketing contract with Driscoll, so they have to use Driscoll’s varieties or cultivars for which they pay a lot and they have to pay commission fees to Driscoll’s on sales and they have to buy all the Driscoll shipping material and some think this is great because they think that that gets them, it gets them more money because Driscoll’s has a reputation in the market for being better. And some find that they’re really squeezed by Driscoll’s practices. Driscoll’s is in a partnership with Reiter Affiliates. The Reiter and Driscoll family were original partners in the strawberry industry in California. So Reiter has operations where they have farm managers and so they work a lot of lands. So there’s different sorts of arrangements.
Elaine: At the end of your book you warn against chemicals and then you speak for organic union farms, one of them being Swanton in Santa Cruz. And then you say, and I laughed you, you say “go eat broccoli” as your last line. What I read from this is, chemical ecologies have to be addressed at multiple scales. There’s the global, the local and intimate personal levels. Can you talk about how following strawberries or fumigation, can you talk about how following that research object might have opened up other ways of thinking across scales?
Julie: Oh, I do want to say that I don’t really, I mean the Swanton Berry Farm is like the exception that proves the rule. I don’t think it’s a model for the strawberry industry. I like what they do. I like their strawberries, but I don’t think it’s, I think it’s the exception that proves the rule. I just want to be careful about that.
Julie: Well, I think one thing that’s important to think about, and I addressed this a little bit in my first book Agrarian Dreams on organics. I think there’s a way of seeing scale as a problem. I mean, there’s no question that the strawberry industry we have today and the supply of strawberries that we have in any grocery store year-round could not exist without the kind of scaling up of strawberry production that chemicals like the fumigants allowed. But I don’t particularly see small-scale as the antidote to that. For me, we should always be focusing on the processes that create the problem. And so if we could have farming that’s more integrative and less socially exploitive on medium or large scales, I’m all for it. I’ve never kind of valorized small-scale as a solution, but I mean the question is how you have integrative farms on medium or large scales. And I know actually there’s some agriculture investors that think they can do that and I’m curious to see how it goes. You know, I’m just not this kind of agroecological idealist. I would like to see a better way of producing food. There’s a lot of food production practices that I find repulsive and I don’t like them, but I want to see improvement rather than ideals, utopian ideals that may not pan out. So anything we can do to move growers in a better direction, I’m good, I like.
Elaine: I’m interested also in how strawberries, which are in a way a specialty crop and not a staple like rice or wheat… How strawberries actually come to rearrange, reconfigure all of these relationships starting in the 1920s. Is that right? Why strawberries? How did it come to dominate?
Julie: You know, there’s really been kind of three phases of strawberry production. At first it was a specialty crop. They had a hard time finding markets and then they kind of happened upon the fumigation and the breeding that really allowed them to expand. And they had this problem with constant gluts and that, but a lot of it was going into the freezers and then there was another kind of crash. And then starting in the 1980s, the strawberry industry picks up again and it really becomes what it is today. Again, strawberries, were a specialty crop. People would never expect to see them more than a few weeks in the market unless they’re buying them frozen in 1969 or whatever. But the strawberry industry, once it became so productive because of all the innovation, had to figure out how to market it. And so they worked hard on marketing those strawberries and worked hard on convincing the public that strawberries were really good for you, had phytooxidants, became every kid’s favorite. Now, when you walk into the grocery store and you walk into the produce section, strawberries are up front and central. I don’t know how many times I’ve talked to people when talking about this book, and they say, “Oh my kids love strawberries, I’m in New York and I know I shouldn’t, but I gotta buy strawberries cause that’s the only thing my kid will eat.” I hear that all the time. I mean, one thing some people asked me is why should we care about strawberries? Why do we even need strawberries? Is it important? And it kind of, it’s kind of not, you know. I mean on the one hand, nutritionists are telling us to eat more fruit and some vegetables and I think we ought to eat fresh fruits and vegetables. I like fresh fruits and vegetables. And so for me, it’s not a matter of this crop is too nasty and we have to get rid of it. Because then, we’ll find others. I mean it’s very hard to find any crop produced on a mass basis that doesn’t have significant problems with the way it’s produced. This one just happens to be the tip of the iceberg. But anyways, the strawberry industry did do a lot of work to make it an everyday fruit.
Can I talk about the broccoli? The reason I end with “go eat your broccoli” is because one of the ways to grow strawberries without fumigation (and there are several on the table), is a more integrative method where you’re growing strawberries and then rotating with compost or other crops. And the Brassicas like cauliflower and broccoli and kale happened to work. And so those growers who are growing strawberries organically over the long run tend to grow a lot of broccoli. People don’t want to buy the broccoli. They want to buy the strawberries. Now that method, while it works ecologically is very, very difficult financially. I mean the growers that are doing it successfully grow in regional markets or they sell the farmers’ markets where consumers are willing to pay more, but on a mass basis, it’s not clear that people eat that much broccoli.
Elaine: I have a clarification question. How long is the growing time for strawberries?
Julie: Well, that’s one of the things that’s so interesting. I mean, it depends on the region because in the southern part of the state where they’re growing those short-day varieties, it’s maybe only a few months, but up in Pajaro Valley or Salinas, which are in Santa Cruz and Monterey counties, they have the longest season and those strawberries will be in the ground and be producing for up to nine months. They have certain spikes over the season. But that’s one of the interesting things because growers in that region need the ground for longer than a year to produce like that. They need to get the last crop out, they need to till the soil, and then they need to fumigate and plant again. And so one of the things they do is they rotate with vegetable growers who can get a couple crops in a short season, like a 9-month season. Then the strawberry growers have it for the other 15 months.
Elaine: Is there competition from other countries to grow strawberries?
Julie: Well, Mexico is a big deal. When they were first learning of the plans to phase out methyl bromide, there was huge concern that Mexico would compete because Mexico had a later phase out date because developing countries didn’t have to phase out as quickly as so-called industrial developed countries. And that turned out not to pass. Mexico is producing, I mean there’s quite a bit of strawberry production in Mexico right now and a lot of it is run by California companies. And the season, most of the production doesn’t really compete with the California season because they do it in the dead of winter. But I do understand that they’re finding higher elevation areas where they can grow strawberries for a longer season in Mexico, which would compete. Spain is a major strawberry producer in Europe as is the Netherlands. I think they do it all in greenhouses. It’s very different. And strawberries just don’t ship that well that you’re going to send them across the seas. So Mexico is the biggest competition. Some growers complained bitterly and some say not a big deal. I think it depends where they’re growing.
Elaine: My last question is about possible futures, or “living-with.” So these are multilayered, very complex, very highly charged conversations. How do you engage your students, your kin, people around you? How do we remain hopeful, at the same time, how do we consider seriously that we live in an agrochemical and highly toxic system?
Julie: Yeah, I don’t know. I mean, it’s very hard. I just don’t like to come up with happy endings when the endings aren’t happy and right in this moment in history, where we are right now, I think that’s just a mega-message. I mean, we are not in a happy space right now, in a bunch of different ways. And to pretend otherwise is absurd. And strawberries, really in some ways, are the least of my worries with the impending fascism or the existing fascism. I mean, the damage we’re doing to humans and environments right now is beyond, it’s beyond belief. So, is this book a cautionary tale? For sure, it’s a cautionary tale, but those roads have already been traveled. Maybe what we can do is just try to do a little bit better, but I just don’t see any kind of utopian way out of here.
Living-with is one possibility and one that I think some growers themselves entertain. And obviously they’re able to do that better when they’re growing integrated systems or when they have economic cushion to do so, when they don’t worry about losing part of a crop or all of a crop, which some often do.
I play with living-with at one part of the book, in part because of my dog who I got as a puppy when doing this research and who became afflicted with Giardia and it was a total pain to try to, I’m going to spare your listeners the scatological details, but one could only imagine, but we tried a whole lot of different treatments for her, some as severe as a fumigant. We used the highly intense metronidazole, which is brand name Flagyl used to cure some infections and it didn’t really work with her and we tried several different treatments and the vet kept saying increase it and we tried this other one that was a little less toxic. And then we tried this weird natural herb remedy. We got it at the herb store and we tried a bunch of different things and finally we went to a holistic vet and said, why don’t you just change her diet and see what happens? And we did. And she’s a healthy, robust, energetic dog, but I’m pretty sure she still has Giardia and we probably feed her twice as much as other dogs just to keep her because the Giardia kind of plays on the intestines. So, living-with turned out to be a solution for this one particular organism on this planet. It still just kind of blows my mind that we’re spending all this money and attention on this one particular organism on this planet who happens to live with us, who we adore. So it was an experiment, but is this a replicable one? Maybe, but I think we would need a kind of real change in economics, obviously to imagine growing food that way. Having said that, there’s a lot of overproduction of food, particularly the United States and so living-with could work in terms of getting growers prices back up. Consumers want to have their strawberries at a dollar basket in February. But there are other ways of thinking about it. I don’t think there’s just, there’s not an easy way out.
Elaine: Something that I love about your book is that it’s so methodical.
Julie: That’s my way of thinking. I’m pleased with the book because I was able to show the connections that I thought were going to be a real challenge to do, and show how they connect with each other although I couldn’t show it every single instance. You know, you have to have a narrative thread.
Elaine: It’s extraordinary. Well, thank you. Thank you so much for the conversation.
Dawson works across the fields of postcolonial studies, environmental humanities, and climate justice. He is professor of English at CUNY Graduate Center and College of Staten Island, and leads a Climate Action Lab.
Elaine: Your work brings together two fields: environmental humanities and postcolonial studies. So, conventionally one begins with nature or the environment. And the second begins with culture or the human. Could you tell us a little bit about how you’re thinking about those two fields? What’s the relation between the two?
Ashley: I can tell a specific story about traveling to Staten Island after Hurricane Sandy hit, and finding that power was out on the campus of CUNY, and that many of my students were devastated. Some of them had lost their homes and some of the students at the College of Staten Island had actually lost their lives. So, seeing the ways in which the natural disaster played out in an uneven manner across the different geographies of New York City. I was traveling from a neighborhood in Queens that was hardly impacted at all and knew people who were activists who are going into parts of Brooklyn that were really terribly affected. And then seeing what was happening on Staten Island, it was very apparent that cities are uneven and unequal geographies, and that they are dramatically impacted by hurricanes and other natural disasters in a way that magnifies those inequalities. And so that point about the unevenness of urban terrain and the inequalities that play out in the face of disasters is true not just on an urban scale, but of course on a global scale. Right? So the horrible irony that formerly colonized countries are the least responsible for carbon emissions in aggregate, and yet are the places that are being most severely impacted right now by climate change, is something that I think has to be thought about in terms of the kind of confluence of these two fields. Postcolonial studies and environmental humanities. We really can’t understand the way in which the climate catastrophe is playing out without understanding the historical residues and contemporary instantiations of colonial power and imperialism.
Elaine: So what the postcolonial, and I think what the environmental, does is it invites us to think across multiple scales. Climate change somehow demands a planetary scale, but we live in more intimate and human scales, as you said, but also global connections make cities extremely vulnerable. The term you use is, we have “cascading climate disruptions.” Can you say more about cascades, which I think is a really useful way of thinking across scales, right? So while you focus on cities like New York, Jakarta, Miami, Rotterdam, New Orleans, it’s clear that it’s somehow impossible to think of a city or any one group on its own. So there’s no single island basically, and you write, that catastrophe is not unfolding in the Global South only. Or in Queens only, right? Everything is connected. So could you talk about these, you know, this term “cascading climate disruptions”?
Ashley: Sure. Absolutely. Perhaps one good place to start is with the city of New Orleans, which of course we know is a site of disaster from Hurricane Katrina. But what people might not be so familiar with is that after the Army Corps of Engineers fixed the levees, the city still remains extremely imperiled by climate change. And there are variety of different reasons for that and they show the ways in which we can’t think of any particular geographical site in isolation. You know, we need, as you said, to sort of be able to toggle up and down scales and to think about ecosystems in their holistic relation to one another, and to think across geographical spaces. So the city of New Orleans is highly exposed to hurricanes coming in off the Gulf because of the fact that the marshland south of the city is subsiding.
Ashley: Why is it subsiding? Well, there are a variety of different reasons. One of the primary reasons is that the mighty Mississippi River has been enclosed by levees and other forms of flood control, principally since 1927 when there was a disastrous breach in the existing levees, which was connected to the great migration north of African Americans, but going back much longer to the beginning of the history of colonialism with the French in Louisiana, right? So taking a terrain which was constantly changing, you know, with the Mississippi River shifting around. And as it shifted, it would deposit sediment in different areas and build up the Lobes, which are now that kind of boot-like structure, which is Louisiana, including New Orleans and the areas south of it. As the kind of colonial enterprise of taking the river and nature more broadly, and kind of controlling it and putting it within this tourniquet structure of the levees ramped up. So the land surrounding the Mississippi River was denied sediment, and it began to subside. So you had a phenomenon of the rivers kind of gradually raising up and the surrounding land sinking down. Now those conditions were dramatically exacerbated by the oil companies, which were drilling canals to gain access to oil in the area south of New Orleans over the last half century or so. And as soon as they would draw one of those canals, they would let in salty water from the Gulf, which would eat away at the surrounding land, like a kind of acid. So if you fly over what’s left of the Mississippi Delta, south of New Orleans, you can kind of see these long lines of the canals that have been, that have been eaten away at all around them by the saltwater, creating what looks like a kind of Swiss cheese structure. And as that’s happened, the ability of land to absorb the power of a storm coming in off the Gulf has been diminished, right? And so, not withstanding all of these powerful defenses, which the city of New Orleans has built, it’s increasingly vulnerable and is only going to get more and more vulnerable. Now what Louisiana is talking about doing is creating kind of planned breaches of the levees so that more soil would be deposited in the delta and there would be these kinds of natural processes of building it back up again. The problem, however, is that not nearly as much sediment is coming down the Mississippi, as used to come down, because so much topsoil has been washed off lands because of intensive capitalist agricultural patterns, you know, north of Louisiana. And the amount of planned diversions of the river that you’d have to have to equal natural sediment deposition would be so massive that you would essentially have to move everyone out of what’s left of the delta.
Ashley: So there are lots of impediments given the way that we’ve built up the delta, and people are really beginning to move away from it. And you know, the kind of retreat is the ultimate solution, unfortunately at this point. This history really is a testament to exactly what you’re asking me about, you know, the way we need to be able to think about ecosystems in their full complexity and across geographical scales that are very different from the kinds of scales that we’ve constructed. Whether they’re metropolitan or the scale of the nation-state. Nature just doesn’t abide by those kinds of hard and fixed lines.
Elaine: Why the city? Why coastal cities like New Orleans, New York as sites of what you call “peril and promise.”
Ashley: I was thinking about the fact, and this goes back to your initial question about postcolonial studies, I was thinking about the fact that the majority of humanity is now urban, that the vast majority of the urbanization that’s going to happen in this century is going to take place in cities of the global south. And there’s a lot of colonial framing of urbanization that still shapes how we perceive that urbanization. You know, places like Lagos and Jakarta are often perceived through a kind of Western lens as a bearance or failed examples of urbanization. And so critics like Mike Davis have alerted us to the fact that this planet, “planet of slums” as he describes it, you know, is something that is one of the key and defining characteristics of, for human experience essentially, in this century. Yet, I don’t think it gets dealt with enough. And thinking about that fact of planetary urbanization, for me necessarily entailed thinking about the impact of climate change on the city and the ways in which cities are themselves drivers of climate change. So, you know, as people move out of rural areas to cities, they tend to consume more. They tend to be connected to the grid and other forms of energy infrastructure that leads to carbon production. And so planetary urbanization is a big driver of climate change. And yet in addition, cities are very much on the frontlines of the impacts of climate change because cities have these highly developed and vulnerable infrastructures. Even global south cities, you know, people as I said, want to have access to the grid and live in close propinquity to one another. And that can mean that something like the urban heat island effect, which is — although we tend to think about sea level rise and fast onset natural disasters like hurricanes or tsunamis as the biggest threat to coastal cities — in fact, the urban heat island effect tends to be the most destructive form of climate change, at least in terms of raw numbers of people who suffer from forms of anthropogenic climate change in an urban setting.
Ashley: So, yeah, thinking about the extreme vulnerability of cities is really important. I wanted to get at that dynamic and also link what’s been happening in instances which might be quite prominent in readers in the global north and you know, in a North American setting after Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy, to what’s happening in many other parts of the world. Because I think that neoliberal globalization has meant that a lot of urban development has taken place in coastal zones. You know, just think for instance, about the way that one of the key strategies of neoliberal globalization has been to offshore production, much manufacturing production to other countries like China where labor is cheaper. What parts of China have developed? Well it’s been cities like Guangzhou and Shenzen that are all based in the coastal areas and are highly vulnerable to climate change. So, you know, thinking about how some of the primary dynamics of the present moment connected to the growth, the global growth of capitalism, are very much shaping an urban future that we need to be thinking about and adapting ourselves for, I think is really kind of key.
Elaine: The powerful term you use is the title of your book, which is “extreme city.” And you say global capitalism has run amok. Can you define an extreme city? Because you don’t mean megacity, right? You’re not talking about population.
Ashley: Yeah, exactly. So there’s been a kind of tendency to try and come up with categories for cities and it tends to be a demographic one, right? So a city that has over 20 million people is a megacity, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. And so I wanted to be clear that I’m not trying to come up with another designation, although it needs to be recognized that the kind of question of scale is important, in relation to cities. And many contemporary cities are these kind of sprawling conurbations that don’t actually stop at their political boundaries, but sprawl much more widely. So, you know, think about New York City. Nominally it’s the five boroughs, but of course we have to include New Jersey, right? Probably everything from Boston to Washington DC could actually be said to be one massive conurbation. And there’s a similar kind of phenomenon in other parts of the world. I’ve already talked about China, but one could also talk about the whole area of West Africa, you know, that stretches up and down around the Gulf of Guinea. So, those are important questions. But what I’m trying to get at when I talk about the extreme cities, the kind of confluence of cities that are highly unequal as a result of the way that capitalism is playing out at the moment, particularly in terms of its financialization, and the way that that then connects to real estate development, and the pushing out of people who are not part of the 1%. So you get cities that are incredibly economically stratified. And you know, another element of this of course is kind of the sucking in of populations from other parts of the world to the peripheries of cities to serve the most well-heeled and elite. So you get a kind of doughnut shape of cities that kind of reproduces class and race inequalities. And then the ways in which that kind of economic and social inequality is impacted by extreme forms of weather that are generated by climate change.
Ashley: So those are the two kinds of extremes I want to get at: extreme economic forms of urban inequality, and then extreme weather. And I want to think about the way those two things interact with one another, right? Because the more economically unequal a city or any other social group is, studies have shown, the less capable that social group is to deal with forms of disaster, whether it’s fast onset or more slow onset, you know, like increasing heat during the summer. So, it’s really important to think those two things in relation to one another.
Elaine: Can you talk about New York more specifically? So I think what we get from your book is the precarity of extreme cities, so the historical, relentless development of real estate projects on waterfront stretching back to colonialism or British imperialism. I’m wondering about New York specifically. So what is happening to waters around New York? What exactly is going on in New York?
Ashley: The waters around New York… the waters have not done particularly well in the history of New York. I mean, of course, New York grew up as a maritime city. Prior to colonization, it was a very important site for Native American peoples, a kind of gathering place. It had some of the richest oyster beds in the entire Eastern seaboard. That’s one of the things that defined it as an important site for native Americans. And it also had immensely rich wetlands. You know, it’s an estuary and estuaries tend to be some of the richest terrestrial ecosystems. So both in terms of the flora and fauna, it’s an immensely rich and productive space where the sea meets the mighty Hudson and other rivers, you know. And so that wealth was incredibly important and explains why the city developed here. But over the last few centuries, a lot of the wetlands have been paved over and destroyed. The oyster beds have been mined essentially to extinction. And what was left of them was polluted to the point where they couldn’t survive. That’s not to say that there isn’t a lot of natural abundance in the waters around New York City. You know, we still have whales coming to the New York harbor, many different varieties of whales. And you know, New York is also an incredibly important site for wetlands that are part of the flightways of many migrant bird species. Just to name a couple of examples of the great kind of natural riches and different species that live in New York, in and around New York’s waters. It’s important to recognize that richness historically to see how wrong-headed the destruction of all of that wealth has been. And of course, to fight, to restore it and bring it back to life as, you know, many people have been doing.
Elaine: So a year before your book “Extreme Cities” came out, you wrote a little book called “Extinction.” And in “Extinction,” you argued that we can’t just think about species, environments and capitalism separately. So the city metabolizes natural worlds, and at the same time, ecologies metabolized cities. Can you talk about the relationship between the two books?
Ashley: Yeah, of course. The importance of understanding that the crash of species around the planet is driven by a capitalist economic system, which is bent on assessing growth underlined that first book on extinction. I didn’t write specifically about the city in the book. I wrote about particular examples such as the whale industry, the whaling industry, which in the 19th century was industrialized. You had ever bigger ships that were ever faster driven by fossil fuels, which ranged widely all through the different oceans on the planet and which hunted dominant species of whales to, if not to the point of extinction, to the brink of extinction, to the point where the industry became unsustainable. You know, they just couldn’t make enough money to keep going. And so much of the European and North American whaling industry essentially crashed because of this very short-sighted attitude towards the natural world, which I argue is driven by capitalism. And by the inherent growth dynamic of capitalism.
Ashley: How is all of that connected to extreme cities? Well, you know, urbanization is one of the dominant ways in which financialized capital is making itself manifest. Um, how does that play out? Well, basically, you know, as you have an increasingly wealthy 1% making money through the stock market and other forms of financialization, they need to find places to put that surplus accumulation and one of the best places to park it is in real estate, right? So cities become these sites of accumulation and the buildup of the built environment in cities transpires, hand in hand, with the financialization of capital. Now that’s really important and you can see it in a place like New York City over the last few decades because as it becomes more and more apparent that the destruction of the natural world in and around cities is untenable. And just to go back for a second to your previous question about sort of multispecies existence in the city and why it’s necessary, the destruction of wetlands around the city, for example, makes the city more vulnerable. I already talked about that in relation to New Orleans, but exactly the same thing is true in New York City. So in New York, we don’t really remember that we used to have a lot of wetlands. In fact, we do still have quite some important wetlands and they act as buffers. So when hurricane Sandy pushed a wall of water into not just the New York City harbor affecting downtown Manhattan, but also into Jamaica Bay, it was the wetlands around Jamaica Bay that absorbed some of that storm surge. And where the wetlands had been destroyed, the water was just able to come into people’s houses and into the streets. So it was extremely destructive because of the annihilation of the kind of multispecies communities that exist in wetlands.
Ashley: What we see over the last few decades is this increasing awareness that we need to conserve and restore nature in cities in order to make cities livable places for the long term. But then hand in hand with that, a dynamic that’s driven by capitalism and real estate to pave over a lot of cities and to put development in places that make absolutely no sense. And in the book I talk about Michael Bloomberg’s PlaNYC, which was the first sort of important sustainability document or plan for New York, which had a lot of great ideas in it. Important policy innovations like planting a million trees and putting down hundreds of miles of bike paths that were really, really great. And you know, we need to do more of that sort of thing clearly. But then it also called for essentially building up parts of the city that were kind of exindustrial in areas that could have had wetland restoration take place, but instead are now lined with very expensive high-rise condos like Williamsburg and Long Island City. And those areas are all extremely vulnerable to storm surge. So we’ve really put people into places they don’t belong and raised levels of vulnerability in a way that makes no sense. If one thinks about what we could have done and what other cities are doing.
Ashley: I don’t know if I’m being angry enough! I feel like I should get more angry. I fear being too like trying to figure out how to make it all sound rational. We should be talking about dead bodies.
Elaine: How would you want people to think about New York? So New York isn’t just a city. It’s a huge state with farms, waterways, lots of different species. You mentioned the oysters, wetlands, marshes. How can we think about ecologies as relationships between city and country, relationships between urban, suburban, rural, local, global, planetary. How would you guide people through that?
Ashley: Yeah, that’s a great question. And it goes back to questions of scale. I would say first of all, so I’ve already talked a little bit about how we need to think about sort of the demographics and political questions in terms of how we really map a city and its boundaries. Another element of that has to do with Wall Street, which we haven’t talked about. I mean, we’ve alluded to capitalism, but of course Wall Street is one of the epicenters of global capitalism. And so we really can’t think about New York City and its carbon footprint and its political and economic significance without thinking about Wall Street and global financialization. So it’s not just in terms of the kind of frenetic pace of building skyscrapers in New York City itself, in places that don’t make any sense like the Hudson Yards or Long Island City. It’s in terms of the entire global arrangement of free trade, open borders and capital flows, and investments into unsustainable forms of development. You know, with capital seeking quick returns in fossil fuel and extraction of minerals and many other things that, we really need to step away from, as the IPCC has told us.
Ashley: So the city, New York City, needs to be thought of in terms of much larger dynamics, I would argue. Yet while we do all of that, we also want to be thinking about much more kind of local issues. And again, the kind of unevenness in the actual terrain of New York City. So there’s a tendency to see cities in homogenized terms. As I said at the outset that, you know, my experience showed that that was not true. And if you just look at the history a little bit, you can see that that’s not true. So one of the main reasons that New York City is such an important site for environmental justice organizations — and has so many environmental justice organizations — is because populations of color in the city were targeted for particularly polluting industries, whether it is waste transfer stations or bus terminals or you know other kinds of polluting industries that mean that working class populations and communities of color in the city have some of the highest rates of asthma, as well as being, you know, some of the most heavily policed and incarcerated. So we need to think about those kinds of intersecting crises in order to understand how the climate crisis is playing out on a kind of local level and then how people are trying to think about solutions, right.
Ashley: One of the things that I just wrote about recently after the book, was the proposal by New York City’s current mayor de Blasio to draw a lot of municipal power — in fact, 100% of the city’s power — from HydroQuebec. So this would mean putting a cable down the Hudson to get supposedly clean energy from dams in Quebec. Sounds like a good proposal. Sounds like part of, you know, his continuation of PlaNYC’s effort to green the city. The problem is that dams are not sustainable. In order to make a dam, you have to flood a hell of a lot of land, usually with trees in it. Those trees then decay and release a lot of carbon. So hydro is not really a sustainable solution. Whose land is it that gets flooded, tends to be indigenous people, particularly in Quebec, but in many other parts of the world too. So it’s politically oppressive and part of a contemporary extension of settler colonialism. So those kinds of issues of decolonization come up. And then in addition, it means that New York City is going to be getting a major source of power from somewhere else, right? So we’re not going to be creating the local forms of industry and employment that we would want to be creating. And that’s particularly important because environmental justice organizations like UPROSE, which is based in Sunset Park, have been arguing that we need to have renewable energy being produced locally. So they recently formed New York State’s first solar coop — not just New York City’s first solar coop but New York state’s first solar coop, which is quite amazing you know, that we’re so late in the game. So close to the kind of limits of, according to the IPCC, of when we need to be 100% renewable, that we’re just getting the first solar coop. It’s a big victory nonetheless. But the other thing they’ve been arguing for is using the Brooklyn Navy Yards to produce wind turbines, which at the moment, there’s a big procurement in for New York State to build 9,000 megawatts of solar farm off the coast of Long Island City. It’s a really massive procurement, enough to run 6 million homes. So it’s a really, really good thing. But where are those wind turbines going to come from? As far as we know at the moment, a lot of them are likely to be shipped from Denmark, across the Atlantic on big barges that will be run by, you know, diesel or some other form of fossil fuels. So, you know, instead of giving employment to local folks in communities that have historically been disadvantaged and producing these things locally, we’ve got this incredibly unsustainable setup playing out. So, you know, thinking about the city both in terms of its kind of global impact, in a moment of enduring fossil capitalism, as well as thinking about how we need to address disparities in the city as we fight for a post-fossil capitalist, a kind of, you know, solar and wind and other modern renewable based economy I think is really, really important to do.
Elaine: Could you say a little bit more about this solar coop, as well as some of the things you are doing at the Climate Action Lab to engage people? What are key messages that you want people to hear? How do you want people to mobilize? How do you think people should get involved, things are so connected, right? And because there are what you call environmental blowbacks to what we do. How should we think about everyday climate actions or climate actions at multiple scales?
Ashley: Well, I think the most important message to send out to people is that a kind of market-oriented transition to renewables is not happening fast enough, right. And the reason it’s important to emphasize that is that for, well at least the last decade, there’s been an idea that the market is going to save us. That’s, you know, in the Stern Report, which, you know, Nicholas Stern said we had to have this transition, but we could do it through market means. And that kind of overarching attitude has played itself out in some of the solutions proposed at the United Nations for dealing with climate change. And it continues to play out in terms of the transition to renewable energy. And just to be clear about why this is such an important issue: of course we need to be thinking about a whole variety of other issues and thinking about how they interrelate. So, you know, when one talks about New York City, one also has to think about the fact that 70% of the carbon emissions from the city come from its buildings. And so the recent big victory for the Climate Mobilization Act where the New York City Council voted to basically impel big realtors, owners of buildings over 25,000 square feet, to retrofit their buildings, cut their carbon emissions by 80%, is a huge victory. And we should be thinking about how to do more of that on other kinds of scales, you know, for buildings smaller than 25,000 square feet.
Ashley: But for me, the issue of energy is absolutely essential, right? Because we need to transition away from burning fossil fuels as quickly as we possibly can and that is not happening. Even though solar power has gotten cheaper, even though there are these projects such as the one that I mentioned of putting in place wind turbines, we are also in the middle of a massive boom of fossil gas and oil. You know, the fracking revolution has turned the United States into Saudi America. And as a result of that, we’re fighting pipelines all over the country and efforts to export not just from the Marcellus Shale in Western Pennsylvania to places like New York City, but you know, a lot of that stuff abroad to markets in other parts of the world. So we really need to be clear that we need to be fighting those kinds of projects through nonviolent direct action, through legal means and through public education and, in tandem with that, building out the renewable sector in ways that think about social and environmental justice as clearly as possible. Thinking about those different connections is really important.
Ashley: Now in terms of the question of climate action, I set up the Climate Action Lab because I was interested in exploring what could be done on a kind of grassroots urban scale to deal with the climate crisis. New York City has produced what had been some quite path-breaking plans for the city. But that’s coming out of the municipal government and there have often been shortcomings, right. It’s often been some strange blend of good initiatives to green the city with real estate driven things that don’t make any sense. So I was very much inspired by a plan for northern Manhattan, which Aurash Kharwazad, the urban planner did working with the environmental justice group, We Act which is based in Harlem. And that plan came up with a whole lot of really vibrant proposals that emphasized things like solar power, but not just to have renewable energy, but to provide jobs and income for people in the community, which had been so hard hit by histories of racism and economic marginalization. Other examples that were put forward in that Harlem plan include building social centers for people so that people would have a place to find refuge in the event of some kind of natural disaster like Hurricane Sandy. These would be places that would be elevated, that would be reinforced, that would have lots of social media so that people communicate with one another and with the outside world. But in times that were not as heightened disastrous, um, in under normal conditions, they could also function as a kind of space where people could meet one another to create a kind of social glue, to kind of thicken the social networks which connect people. And what we’ve seen in looking at, again, kind of both fast moving disasters like hurricanes and kind of more slow onset ones such as the urban heat island effect, is that natural disasters have highly grievous impact when the social fabric has been shredded. Right. So the means of redressing historical forms of racism, gender inequality, and the many other, you know horrendous forms of injustice that are circulating in cities today, are also ways of dealing with climate change. And unfortunately, politicians, even on the municipal level, are often not the best at thinking and responding to the demands of communities for these kinds of innovative solutions. These kinds of solutions which redress historical inequalities. I mean, unfortunately, even under a nominally progressive politician like de Blasio, you know, whose version of PlaNYC is called OneNYC, right? So it’s explicitly saying we need to move away from two cities from urban inequality. Nonetheless, he continues to rezone communities in New York City. And doing that is a way of bringing in big developments and amplifying gentrification and the marginalization of communities that are already struggling. So yeah, there needs to be some kind of popular planning as a means of articulating visions of alternative futures and possibilities and as a way of actually putting concrete pressure on politicians to change their tactics.
Elaine: So the hopeful side of “Extreme Cities” is there’s promise, right? And that promise is, for you, lies not in fortified seawalls but in urban movements. So the social glue that you just talked about. So what, who should we be listening to? What kinds of social glues are worth our attentions at the moment?
Ashley: We do want to listen to people who have some expertise. I think the most exciting kinds of situations that I’ve come across are in collaborations between institutions that have a lot of specialized knowledge, often knowledge that’s trying to shift its mode of relating to the world, both, you know, the human social world and to the natural world. And then, you know, broader publics. So, let me give you an example of what I’m talking about. The Rebuild By Design contest was sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation after Hurricane Sandy, and it was designed to basically come up with design solutions to areas that had been particularly hard hit by Hurricane Sandy. I think it was quite path-breaking in that it wasn’t just a bunch of engineers or architects who would say, okay, here’s a problem, we’re going to come up, you know, in our ivory towers with wonderful solutions and then trot them out for the community and have a short kind of community time of speak back, which is usually the way these things are done in urban governance. Instead, the model was to put together teams of anthropologists, sociologists, engineers, architects, and to send them out into communities, and have an extended process of research, and feedback, and exchange with communities. So the communities could really articulate what their needs were, what kinds of transformations of the landscape and the urban fabric they wanted to see. So the design solutions proposed would be not simply responding to the immediate damage that Hurricane Sandy caused, but to much more longstanding challenges and problems of the kind that I’ve been trying to address, which make it much harder for communities to be resilient in the face of climate change.
Ashley: And I think there were a lot of great proposals that came out of that contest. For me, the most creative one was the one proposed by the Scape Studio. Kate Orff and her colleagues proposed this model of living breakwaters which I think is such a fascinating example of kind of multispecies community, right? So the idea was to deal with the flooding of parts of Southeast Staten Island during Hurricane Sandy, by building breakwaters off the coast, which are different from some kind of levee structure because they don’t give you the illusion of being totally cut off from the natural world and from storm surges, but they do kind of mitigate the storm surge. They cut the size of the waves as they come in off the ocean. And that means that you can build up natural defense systems on land, like dunes with various different natural grasses on top of them that can do the rest of the job of absorbing the storm surge hopefully. And you don’t have this false illusion of absolute security that a wall tends to create. But then on top of the manmade breakwaters, the proposal was to have oyster reefs, which would themselves grow as the waters in the New York Bay rise which inevitably they’re going to do. And what this would do of course is to help with the storm surge mitigation. But, it would also be a natural way of cleaning the waters of the harbor and helping to resuscitate natural ecosystems. And it could also be part of engaging people in coastal communities with a deeper understanding of the world around them, the natural world around them, which could include harvesting the oysters so they would have some source of economic benefit by supporting these kinds of mechanisms. So I think that’s one of the most creative examples of what could be done and the ways that people are shifting ideas about living with the natural world. You know, so that we no longer sort of see the natural world as something out there that we need to build barricades against, but rather something that we can interact with and try and find our place within, in ways that are beneficial all around.
Ashley: But I, I don’t want to say that Rebuild By Design was all roses. You know, there are lots of problems with it. The proposal, which got funded the most was to essentially build a big levee around Wall Street around downtown. And in fact, that’s the proposal which de Blasio’s now talking about implementing it, it’s where most of the money is going. And while the city sort of says, quite thoughtfully, that downtown area is a place where a lot of the city’s infrastructure converges. It’s a place where many subway lines come and it’s very important to employment in the city, including working class employment in the city. Nonetheless, you know, the symbolism and the material fact of supporting Wall Street and really putting the lion’s share of infrastructural support into Wall Street rather than into other parts of the city is obviously a quite symbolic problem. And again speaks volumes about where the economic power and political power really resides in this city, despite the vibrant social movements and environmental justice movements that I’ve been talking about.
Elaine: I think I remember seeing a photo of post-Sandy the only building downtown that was completely illuminated was Goldman Sachs.
Ashley: Yes, that’s right. Because they had their own private generator, right. So their ability to have this, I mean, the kind of the neoliberal calculus of people being able to kind of think of themselves alone, to escape into a kind of lifeboat was so evident from that. You know, they had their own generators, so when the rest of the grid crashed, they were fine. They had their power and they could keep trading while everyone else in the, in that area suffered. And it’s also important to know that there’s a kind of pre-history to all of this, and that has to do with the 9/11 attacks and the way that the decimation of downtown was dealt with through forms of financial aid, which went to very well-heeled communities in the downtown area and bypassed communities of color, particularly people living in Chinatown and the Lower East Side. So, you know, Asian Americans and Latinx populations who lived in that area, but really didn’t get any significant portion of the aid, so that it’s not just the kind of, the symbolism of putting a barrier that’s going to save Wall Street in place. It’s also the way in which disasters, disaster relief, can often groove inequalities even deeper, right? So it’s not just the disaster that impacts people and exacerbates forms of longstanding inequality. It’s the way that in the United States, the existing kind of uneven development of capitalism along racial, particularly racial fault lines gets amplified by efforts to rebuild after disaster. That’s a big, big issue in New York City and all around the rest of the country.
Elaine: How might we think about urgency? So what are the temporalities, different timelines that are coming together? It seems to me with an extreme city, that the timelines of neoliberalism or relentless urban development, alongside the temporality of rising waters, alongside the temporality of environmental movements, species extinctions. How do we map out different timelines, different urgencies, different crises? It’s long for some, slow for some, but very rapid for others. Um, and you know, you’ve been talking a lot about history, pre-history, which is actually really, really useful in thinking about crises. How do we think about temporalities?
Ashley: Hmm, that’s a great question. I think it’s really important to be aware of the ways in which the contemporary media tends to focus almost exclusively on mediagenic disasters, which tend to be fast moving like hurricanes and to play down the other forms of what Rob Nixon calls slow violence, which play out. Whether that’s toxicity affecting bodies, like, you know, high rates of asthma in places that are cited for polluting industries in cities and in rural areas as well, of course. Or things like the urban heat island effect, which I have referred to a number of times. Just to be clear about what that is, you know, obviously cities that have a lot of concrete tend to be much hotter than the areas around them. And that means that people who don’t have the economic means to access air conditioning or other forms of cooling tend to be placed in harm’s way during hot snaps. And of course, if that means not just on a personal level, but when cuts to public services like libraries mean that they can’t go to a place where they can access cooler environments. And this is more and more of a kind of crisis all over world. And of course in some parts of the global south, cities are literally becoming too hot to be alive in. And this is in places where the vast majority of the population is living in informal settlements, you know, sort of in shanty towns. We’re really talking about a crisis, which is really, really dramatic for a lot of people, but is also kind of playing out more slowly and often isn’t emphasized in media depictions of climate change.
Ashley: So I feel like I run around with my hair on fire because I feel like we should all be in the streets, and we should all be protesting the fact that our governments are not taking this stuff seriously enough. In fact, you know, my sense is that we’re in a very dangerous trajectory as the situation deteriorates. Both in terms of the climate and in terms of the economy. You know, as neoliberalism continues to fail the vast majority of populations, there’s a tendency to engage in forms of authoritarian populism, and particularly to turn towards what I call extractivist populism. We see that with Trump and his kind of America First energy plan. So he’s not just denying climate change, but he’s saying, you know, we need to bring back coal. We need to open up the Arctic to more oil drilling. And he’s captured a segment of the American working class by doing that, you know. In addition to his kind of explicit racism and all these anti-immigrant stuff, you know, there’s this kind of idea that we need to make America great by going back to the heyday of fossil capitalism. And he’s not the only person doing this, you know, we see just recently, an Australian politician who brought a lump of coal into Parliament and said that we need to respect this coal, was re-elected as prime minister. And of course in Brazil, the current president Jair Bolsonaro explicitly campaigned on opening the Amazon up for exploitation. So there’s this kind of sense that, as the climate crisis grows more grave and as it becomes a crisis that’s compounded by the failure of neoliberal capitalism, there’s a turn to more and more extractivism. Which is justified on populous grounds and you get an increasing vilification, you know, not just of women and queer people, and you know immigrants, but also of anyone who wants to think about the ways in which those targeted populations interact with the environment and the survival of communities, in environmental terms.
Ashley: I think this is a really, really kind of grave crisis and we need to be fighting as much as we can for really very, very radical solutions, right? So the, we know that the big fossil fuel companies are quite happy funding climate denialism and quite happy with Trump in power, but that they’re already beginning to talk about carbon taxes as the solution because they know that eventually he will be gone or that they need to, you know, when the terrain and the argument in places that are not quite so reactionary like the European Union. But that carbon taxes are going to continue the system of fossil capitalism. So I think we need to be putting much more radical proposals on the table. I think the Green New Deal is a really important argument because it both sets forth the plan for a really massive transition that is on the scale of the nation-state. And I would argue it needs to be on the scale of the globe, right? Because as planetary urbanization happens, as I said, more and more people get on the grid. And so we need to be sending renewable technology as it’s developed to those folks and helping them come up with their own technologies, you know, forms of sort of local flexible technologies, as much as possible, in order to fight this extractivist populism. And we also need to talk about very radical proposals like nationalizing the fossil fuel companies and shutting them down as quickly as possible, while transitioning workers in those areas to renewable industries or to other industries. And I think the Green New Deal does a great job of doing that, right? Trying to make social justice arguments and arguments about just transition in order to provide an alternative to the kind of racist, extractivist populism that Trump and you know, the many similar figures around the planet are articulating today. So I think it’s a kind of key terrain of struggle, which we all need to be thinking about fighting for and pushing forward in a whole variety of different ways and scales because cities can be labs for experimenting with Green New Deal solutions before they get proposed on a national scale. And, as I’ve, as we’ve been talking about in the course of our conversation, I think New York has done that, but many other cities are also doing that.
Elaine: Can you map out the difference between carbon taxes or maybe define for us, carbon taxes, what the implications are? Why are people for that and some people against the Green New Deal?
Ashley: Yeah, yeah. I think the reason that a lot of people like the idea of a carbon tax is because it’s a kind of free market solution. So it doesn’t challenge the dominant ideology of today too much. So the idea would be that you would put a tax on any consumption of carbon. There are different ways of doing it. Obviously, the tax could be more or less steep and the IPCC has argued that essentially it needs to be so steep that it would be similar to outlawing fossil fuel exploitation. And so, you know, my argument against the carbon tax partially comes from the fact that it’s not really a democratic way of shutting down the life of Exxon and BP and all these other climate criminals. You know, we can come up with much more democratic ways that are likely to help workers much better than some kind of market-oriented solution.
Ashley: The other problem with them, you know, is that in fact, they tend not to be as steep as the IPCC is proposing. So, the big fossil fuel corporations are quite happy with them because they know that, yeah, it’s gonna get more expensive to buy gasoline and yet people are going to still be buying gasoline, and you know, then they’re going to get to keep exploring for more and producing more for the foreseeable future. So, it’s not something that helps us make the really fast transition away from fossil capitalism that we need to make.
Elaine: So is the main argument that it’s non-democratic and it’s free market solution. Basically, so corporations can just pay more.
Ashley: Yeah, absolutely. And it relies on a kind of smoke and mirrors strategy to deal with the climate catastrophe. Not many people know about this, but in the United Nations negotiations around climate change, there’s been a big push to accept the premise of geoengineering. So, even though geoengineering does not work economically to scale, so it shouldn’t be a neoliberal kind of economic solution because it’s a policy that is dysfunctional now and in the foreseeable future because it would not only potentially cause absolute mayhem to the environment, you know, if you spread a bunch of sulphur up into the atmosphere, you can’t tell exactly what it’s going to do. It could interrupt the monsoon cycle in South Asia and you know, starve billions of people, for example. You can’t be absolutely sure and you could have kind of interim puerile warfare in the atmosphere taking place with one nation saying, “Oh right, I’m going to spread some sulfur to cool down the environment over my country.” And then another nation being like, “Oh, right, well I’m going to do the same with mine.” And then, you know, who knows where it’s all going to end up. So there, there are lots of very scary, kind of political potential ramifications for all of this.
Ashley: But it doesn’t work economically either. And yet it has been now hardwired into the scenarios which the United Nations predicts for how to cope with climate change and what the possible trajectories of warming are. So the reason that these big fossil fuel companies can say, oh, we need to have carbon taxes is, you know, they basically say, you know, we can’t have an abrupt transition away from fossil fuels because it would be too economically damaging. We need to ask, well, to who exactly. And we don’t need to worry about it so much because you know, we can keep polluting for a long time and then after 2050, we can just do geoengineering and absorb all the carbon back out of the atmosphere. Which is completely stupid, if you think about it even for just a second, right? Because oceans are kind of like the Titanic. Once it gets going in a certain direction, it’s very hard to change course. Once you put a lot of energy into an ocean, and the oceans have been absorbing most of the energy and carbon that we’ve emitted over the last 200 years. Even if you suddenly stop emitting carbon, the oceans are still going to keep warming, right? They have that trajectory. You’ve passed certain kind of tipping points and you’re going to melt a hell of a lot of glacier in Greenland and Antarctica. And so, you know, you have kind of baked into the system– even if geoengineering were feasible economically or politically, the flooding of most major coastal areas, which means literally hundreds and hundreds of millions of people in all the world’s coastal cities being displaced. Right? So, that’s the kind of future that these corporations are talking about. And I think we need to be clear. It’s really genocide that they’re talking about, you know. They are climate criminals who’ve been actively denying and propagandizing against being aware of climate change for the last few decades, and they’re prognosticating genocide against hundreds of millions of people around the world. And we need to be clear about that and to really fight for some other future.
Elaine: So speaking of futures in a video online, Kristen and I actually watched you start a talk with Dr Seuss, with the Lorax.
Ashley: I do?
Elaine: We loved it! So it seems the Lorax was a library book that you and your daughter had read that morning. So I like it a lot because you’re doing three things. One is you’re describing the problem in really accessible terms. The second is you’re talking about sort of the art of storytelling, the power of storytelling. And the third is actually, you’re talking about libraries. You’re talking about public libraries. So I wonder if you can tell us about those three things. That’s a huge question, but they seem like things we really, really need today to think about the future. So one is the imagination, the Lorax, second is the art and science of storytelling, and the third is public libraries or institutions.
Ashley: The Lorax is such a great story. Doctor Seuss was quite the radical and quite ahead of his time, at least in The Lorax. For those of you who don’t know, The Lorax is a story about someone who is a kind of protector of the trees and who comes to tell the story of how this desire to produce completely useless things, I think they’re called Thneeds. It’s some sort of, looks like a pair of, what are they called? Long Johns looks like a pair of long Johns that are produced from these trees that get chopped down. You know, how this manufacturing of useless materials and the manufacturing of desire for those materials leads to the destruction of habitat. And the Lorax kind of is the lonely guardian and the person who bears testimony to the world that once was before all of the trees were chopped down. So yeah, I think you’re right that it gets at all these different– this conjunction of important factors. We need imagination, I think, because we need to be as creative as possible to think our way out of the present situation. I come from a background of cultural studies and literary studies. And so I’m very much aware of the way in which our sense of the future has been written already. It tends to be written by Hollywood. right? That’s the dominant form of media, the dominant form of public narrative and storytelling. And it tends to be apocalyptic, you know, it tends to center on a violent white male who is able to assert himself under very difficult circumstances and gain a band of followers around him and lead them to some kind of salvation in a landscape that’s imagined as completely barren and free for the taking. And so a lot of this imaginary of climate apocalypse, I think just rehearses many of the tropes of settler colonialism and we need to really question it. Both for, you know, some of the things that are implicit in that history that I’ve just recounted, and in terms of the way that it forecloses community mobilization and the possibility for collectively imagining other really creative solutions to climate crisis.
Ashley: Let me just give you one kind of very concrete example. We have the possibility of shifting everything to electricity. We need to electrify everything, right? As part of this transition. Increasingly the idea is that we need to shift to electric vehicles. In fact, Fiat and Chrysler just announced that they wanted to merge with the French major French auto company in order to kind of scale up, to cope with this transition. But why couldn’t we, instead of imagining shifting or switching from combustion engine private automobiles to electric vehicles, imagine forms of collective transportation, or imagine even cities that didn’t have any cars within them whatsoever, right? So, you know, we could be thinking about much more Utopian and collective possibilities than the ones that are furnished to us by capitalism. And that’s about really thinking broadly about possible alternatives and shifting the kinds of stories we tell. I particularly liked George Monbiot’s analysis of the importance of stories and narratives and the way in which. And what Monbiot says is that the kind of ur-narrative for social movements is that, some evil force has taken over the kingdom, or the land, or whatever you want to call it and is oppressing the people. And we need to come up with some hero or some alternative that overthrows that oppressive power. And he sort of talks about how that played out in the World War Two era with the New Deal and Keynesianism and you know, the kind of rise of social democracy, with the story being that fascism had been the oppressive force. And then neoliberalism came along and said, oh, well, you know, the state has got its boot on our necks and we need to liberate ourselves from this, you know, nanny state, which is not functioning and not bringing us the things we need. And we need to set free the dynamic entrepreneurial capacity of the individual subject. And, you know, we know how that’s worked out, not so well! And of course, it’s producing fascism around the world. So we really need to come up with some other stories about collective possibility and potential. I think the Green New Deal is a perfect example of that kind of a story, that kind of an idea that through collective mobilization we can build solidarity with one another and transform our world. And doing that relies on institutions, right? It means that we need to challenge the idea that the state doesn’t work, that public power doesn’t make any sense. And I mean that in both senses of power, public power in the sense of energy, but also public power in the sense of the collective capacity of us to join together.
Ashley: And I, I don’t want to be too utopian, you know, I mean, of course there are massive fragments in the social body, huge inequalities that we shouldn’t blithely dismiss or skate over in our efforts to build solidarity. But I think the idea of fighting for a functioning public sector and for collective solidarity and transformation is a really, really important narrative which we need to work to recirculate both as a story and through political mobilization and through the creation of institutions that do that. You know, we need public banks, we need to municipalize our utilities and control them democratically, fund them democratically. I could go on and on with specific examples, but yeah, you get the point that we really need to change how we think and also how we act.
Elaine: You write about C.S. Holling’s theory of resilience. You, in a way, invite us to move away from centralized control towards cultivating optimal conditions. Can we spell out for whom? Optimal conditions for whom?
Ashley: So in “Extreme Cities,” I’m critical of the idea of resilience, which comes out of the biological sciences as an alternative to sustainability, right? So sustainability assumes a system which doesn’t really change. Anytime there’s some perturbation, you want it to return to the state it was in and it presumes a system, which is relatively homogeneous. So what’s interesting about what Holling is doing is that he is aware that systems are made up of units that connect to one another. And that in order to make systems function so they don’t collapse as a whole, the best way to do it is to link up different pieces, so that maybe one area of a complex system can deal with breakdown or perturbation, but it doesn’t crash the entire system. So this way of thinking about ecosystems as complex wholes that are interconnected or that have interconnecting parts has proliferated way beyond the biological sciences to the point where resilience has become a kind of fetish term or a dogma, right, in many different disciplines. So everyone wants to be resilient these days. You know, it’s something that the military industrial complex is striving for in, you know, the face of quote-unquote terror. It’s something that is very much part of disaster planning, and has been taken on board by disaster planning, but it’s also a very dominant term in areas like high finance, right, which itself, is prone to massive collapses every now and then. So, you know, stockbrokers want to know how they can hive themselves off the next time that something like the bank crisis of 2008 comes around.
Ashley: The problem I have with the term is that it tends to dovetail very easily with a kind of neoliberal way of thinking about the world. So instead of thinking about, how we need to build up the public sector and re-engage with collective forms of survival, it places the onus on individuals. You know, you should build up your own resiliency, whether it’s through, you know, getting your disaster survival kit ready in your apartment, or being the appropriate entrepreneurial subject, you know, and making enough money to buy flood insurance or to have a second home in the Rockies or wherever it is, you know. So I think it very easily plays into a kind of neoliberal way of thinking about things. And the way that I substantiate that claim is by looking at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Rebuild By Design contest and showing how a lot of their ideas of resiliency, which are absolutely central to that contest until a lot of the Rockefeller Foundation’s rhetoric are very much connected to big corporations that are engaged in financialization, you know, privatizing water supplies around the world, for example, as well as data mining for security purposes so that they’re bleeding over from kind of privatized security and surveillance into state-led surveillance efforts. And so I think that term is quite suspect and while we might want to acknowledge its potency originally in the biological sciences and how it might be useful to think with in terms of how we analyze ecosystems, we shouldn’t too quickly be willing to accept it in relation to the human social world and the ways in which politics and economy play out in the contemporary moment.
Elaine: When you think about extinction, what comes to mind for you? Is there, is there a particular species in New York, particular ecology, that you’re, you know more or less attached to, more committed to? You write about whales being in a way the, you know, the species that’s kind of borne the brunt of human extraction. Is there a particular species that comes to mind?
Ashley: Well, maybe not one particular species, but one kind of ecosystem. As I said, close to the outset, New York City is in an estuary. It has had immensely rich wetlands and wetlands absorb seven times as much carbon as rainforests. So they’re both immensely rich ecosystems and really important ecosystems to bring back in cities and in kind of peri-metropolitan areas. I mean, we really need to rewild cities essentially. And I think for the vast majority of coastal cities, the way to do that is to rebuild wetlands in every possible part of the city. That can play a very important role in coping with storm surge. You know, we should be looking to visionary forms of design and landscape architecture of like the Scape Studio that I mentioned to think about how we could kind of green the edges of cities through building out wetlands. And that can also play a really important role in waste remediation of various different kinds. You know, I mean, in New York City, every time that it rains hard raw sewage gets distributed into all of our bodies of water and that creates algae and kills fish and other populations including oysters. So coping with that through rebuilding wetlands is really important. And wetlands can also absorb a tremendous amount of carbon. So if I had to pick like one kind of ecosystem that I think is particularly important, it would be rebuilding wetlands, with all of the species that come with them.
Elaine: I remember you said you teach at the College of Staten Island and you take the ferry.
Ashley: Yes, I do.
Elaine: So I’m wondering, since we’re talking about waterways, New York as an archipelago. Are there things you’ve observed firsthand that have influenced how you think about waterways? Are there changes over the past few years on that ferry?
Ashley: Well, one of the main things that one notices on the ferry is the fact that the New York City harbor is in Bayonne, which means that all of the massive ocean-going containerships that bring cars and underwear and all the other commodities that we consume here from the places where they’re produced, they all go through the Kill Van Kull, which separates Staten Island from New Jersey, and round to the New York City Harbor in Bayonne. And of course that’s had a major impact on New York City, which most people don’t know about, but you know, the economic crash in the 1970s which demolished CUNY, and we’re still feeling the reverberations of that, which led to the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs, and to the kind of ascendancy, a kind of push by real estate elites, including David Rockefeller, which became the paradigm for implementing neoliberalism around most of the rest of the world. A lot of that had to do with the shift of the harbor to Bayonne away from downtown Manhattan and Brooklyn. So, that’s the most clear thing that one notices.
Ashley: And there’ve been big struggles about that, which most New Yorkers don’t know about. Ships are getting bigger and bigger, container ships, some of them are too wide to go through the Panama Canal. And so to go through the Kill Van Kull, the bridge that links Staten Island to Bayonne had to be raised because the ships are so high and they had to blast the stone underneath the Kill Van Kull, this waterway. And so, you know, there was massive disruption. The people who live along that area, which is one of New York’s so-called significant maritime industrial areas, which are the most polluted places. And also the places that have the strongest environmental justice organizations. They had to fight very hard against this, this change, and they lost that struggle. So most New Yorkers don’t know anything about this. And I think they don’t really know anything about the harbor and the life of the harbor. Just in general, if you take the Staten Island Ferry, it’s very important because of the way that it reorients you and shifts the lens on New York City so that you realize that New York is actually a city built around a massive living, important body of water rather than a city built around Central Park, you know, or around Prospect Park or something like that.
Ashley: The history of New York City’s harbor is fascinating and the impact of containerization and how that shaped all the politics and yeah, it’s a huge topic.
Elaine: Your book opens with Superstorm Sandy. I wonder if you can take us through that creative decision as a writer, your writing process. Yeah. Thinking about, you know, the complexities that you’ve just talked about, being able to map them. Can you talk a little bit about your writing process and your research process?
Ashley: Yeah, sure. Thank you. That’s a great question. I wanted to start where I was and who I was, who I am, because I wanted to make clear the ways in which the city is not homogenous, the way it is unequal. So, I start by narrating what for me was a very distressing experience. You know, Sandy was blowing rain into the brick walls and the mortar of our apartment building, and the water was soaking through the wall and creating this giant blister in the paint. I mean, literally it was sort of 10 foot by 20 foot. And so I was up all night, mopping up the water as it seeped out onto our wood floors. And it wasn’t quite clear what was going to happen next, whether our power was going to short out, whether the entire wall was going to fall in or you know, whatever it was. It wasn’t just a lost night of sleep. It really seemed as if the building was on the edge of collapse. And so it was quite terrifying. And yet the same time, it was also a bit surreal. It seemed like something out of a Kafka episode, you know, because the walls seemed to be breathing and coming alive. I wanted to tell that story for all its kind of surreal power. But then I also wanted to talk about what happened when I left Jackson Heights, which the day after Sandy had passed, was back to functioning just as normal and we had power and you know, people were unloading food and the local supermarkets, and everything seemed completely fine. I then wanted to talk about traveling to Staten Island. I was chair at the time and so after a couple of days, even though the power was just getting back up at College of Staten Island, the dean called us back in to try and get the department running again. And you know, because of the nature of precarious labor in the CUNY system, we had adjuncts from far and wide. We had students from all over the city. But particularly, as I’ve said at the outset, many students who live on Staten Island, who’d been really damaged by the hurricane personally. And then I wanted to tell some other stories as well. I wanted to tell the story of a colleague who lived in downtown and who had survived 9/11, and then been displaced by Hurricane Sandy and watched the stormwaters rising and been without power for a week or so after Hurricane Sandy. And then tell the story of someone whom I interviewed who lived in Red Hook and was in this community that was flooded out. She’s African American, her son’s car was completely destroyed and the community really had to band together around this place where she worked, which was a kind of community organization called Red Hook Initiative that began serving food to people in the public housing projects in Red Hook, which is the biggest public housing project in all of Brooklyn. And people lost their power, which meant they couldn’t travel out of their apartments. They couldn’t get medicine. They were without heat because the boilers which are in the basement, you know, got flooded and destroyed. So you often had, you know, elderly people freezing in the cold, unable to access diabetes medicine or something like that. So people really, were at peril for their lives. So being able to tell these different kinds of stories, I think, it was a way I wanted to draw people into the narrative, and connect with them by telling stories that were engaging and upsetting, but at the same time, to illustrate the broader points I wanted to make throughout the book, which had to do with these ways in which climate extremes are impacting very extremely unequal cities and how those two things interact with one another. So yeah, telling that story was a way of getting at those things in a very visceral way that I hoped would make people understand and make them care.
Ashley: Yeah, it took me about two years to research and about two years to write, although I didn’t stop the researching while I was writing. So yeah, it was about a four-year project total. But it was a big departure for me. I’m an English professor, postcolonial studies scholar by training, so I’m used to reading literary text and what other scholars say about them and then writing my own opinion about it, you know, not interviewing people. So that was both challenging and really, really exciting. And yeah, I had fun, for instance, going to meet the mayor of South Miami and having him show me the water coming up in his backyard and, you know, explain to me why this was significant. And then being able to tell those stories. It was great fun to do that. You know, putting narratives together is actually quite fun, even while it can be quite challenging to create a weave of personal narrative of interviews, of research, of like putting a lot of scientific research in lay person’s terms and sort of shuffling backwards and forwards between all those different registers. So yeah, it was definitely a challenging experience for me to write the book, but it was also extremely pleasing. And, you know, always in the background, I had the idea of writing in a way that would engage people. I was immensely lucky to be trained by, or to be around, great scholars of postcolonial studies like Edward Said, and Rob Nixon, and Anne McClintock for whom the importance of writing in a kind of vernacular voice that could connect with people was always primary and very clear. So while I’ve tried to do that in my previous books, I think in this one I took that to the furthest extreme. And so it was both the most challenging but also the most fun to write, even though it’s clearly about a very upsetting topic. Yeah, nonetheless, kind of making the urgency of the issue and the way that people are trying to think about it on the ground clear to people, was something that was you know, engaging to do.
Elaine: How do you tell your students, how do you tell your, you know, people who are dearest to you, your children, your child, about climate change, which is in a way really terrifying, almost paralyzing subject. So how do you in a way scale down this fairly abstract, also dehumanizing, demoralizing scale of climate change for younger generations.
Ashley: Well, I often get asked whether I’m hopeful or how I keep hope alive. One has to, given the climate denialism, one has to be frank. And it’s not just figures like Trump, you know, even the science is always behind, in terms of its projections, you know, for a whole variety of reasons, right. So, you know, projections about sea level melt in Antarctica weren’t even included in IPCC documents because the scientists weren’t sure about the rate of the melt. So they basically just said, okay, so we just won’t factor the Antarctic ice sheets into our calculations for sea level rise, because of the kind of institutional nature of the IPCC, and the fact that it’s intergovernmental and they could be attacked if their science wasn’t exactly right. And so even the science is very conservative. So you have to constantly be saying, yes, it’s more apocalyptic than you think. While at the same time saying, well, you know, don’t despair, don’t go home and just watch TV or whatever you do when you feel as if there’s no hope. So I guess, you know, I sometimes have recourse to tell personal stories and that has to do with the fact that I’m from South Africa, and my family’s response to apartheid when I was young was to put blinkers on and pretend that it wasn’t happening. And then we left South Africa in order to kind of escape the trauma of apartheid essentially. And the fact that there was universal white male conscription and all these wars going on in the border. And because of that, I didn’t get to be part of the struggle against apartheid. And so for me, on a personal level, the struggle against the climate crisis feels like a kind of, a kind of moment of reckoning that is of even greater amplitude than the struggle against apartheid. You know, the protagonists and the evil doers are just as clear, if not more clear, than in the era of apartheid. the stakes are so much greater. I mean, I really think we are talking about the feasibility for much life on the planet in the medium term being at stake. And in the short term, you know, populations being targeted for genocide who have historically been targeted for precisely that.
Ashley: And we get to be part of that titanic struggle and think about radically new and different futures. We have to think about them. Because we can’t just keep going the way we’ve been going. You know, capitalism is not working, not just politically and economically for the vast majority of people, but it’s chewing up the planet that it depends on. And so we absolutely have to think about completely different ways of living. And I want to emphasize that that is an incredibly exciting struggle to be part of because we get to connect with other people and fight that struggle. Not that it’s easy or not discouraging sometimes, but it’s also a struggle for emancipation, which is incredibly moving to be part of, and a struggle for different futures that is very exciting to contemplate and help to forge. So that’s how I respond to this kind of question of how to keep going and how to make sense of things and not be despairing.
Ashley: I think the message is that there’s so many different scales of political struggle that one can engage in. What we tend to get told by the dominant media, by the dominant kind of system and its ideologies is the way to go is to recycle more, right? Like, you know, engage in some individual form of consumerist politics or you know, greener consumerist politics. And I don’t want to poopoo recycling, although of course there’s a global political economy of recycling and you know that’s highly problematic. But, do I think it would be a good thing if everyone in New York City composted and went vegan? Yes, I do! However, there has to be a bigger kind of shift. And I think that there’s a lot of exciting political ferment right now and all sorts of different scales, you know. So whether it’s figuring out how to set up a solo cooperative in the building or the neighborhood that you live in, or you know joining DSA in your city, and fighting for a green new deal in your city with your city council, or fighting for a national green new deal, you know, joining your local labor union, if you’re not in a union, you know, and trying to shift labor unions and their mentality because that’s one of still the most important kind of forms of popular power is through labor unions. And we keep losing there, and the labor union leadership is on the side of fossil capitalism at the moment. There are amazing unions like the nurses’ union that have been really trailblazing and shifting away from fossil capitalism, but the sector as a whole could do much better. Yeah there are so many different kinds of struggles that one can engage in. And so I think figuring out where to plug in and being aware that there are a lot of movements right now that are bubbling up, and that you just need to find a way to connect and get in motion and that the feeling of hope and of capacity as an individual and as you know, a popular force against climate destruction and fossil capitalism comes from that engaging in movement and solidarity. I think that’s important to keep in mind and to engage in. So that’s, that’s what I have to say, just to you know, make those kinds of connections and figure out how to get involved, is really key. [END]