The Flood Next Time

Life after emergency.

As Hurricane Sandy bore down on the East Coast in late October, everyone from Bill McKibben to Andrew Cuomo declared the storm our wake-up call on climate change. Now we would finally have that serious conversation we’d been meaning to get around to; faced with apocalyptic images of flooded subways and decimated houses, we would be shocked out of complacency and into action. Damian Carrington’s column in the Guardian was typical:

If Sandy — and this summer’s record US heat wave — end up blowing Obama back into the White House with enough wind in his sails to persuade him to make climate change a winning issue, it really could have positive global consequences. If not, I shudder to think what scale of apocalyptic disaster will be needed to destroy the political cowardice among world leaders that is stoking the ever greater climate change storms of the future.

Climate change, as the jargon has it, is “super wicked”: it presents notorious obstacles to action. Unlike air pollution, you can’t see carbon in the atmosphere or feel it in your lungs. The people responsible for the vast majority of emissions are relatively insulated from their impacts. The costs of taking action are immediate, the benefits distant and uncertain — though not as distant as recently thought. Understanding climate change’s causes and possible effects demands a great deal of abstract reasoning, both scientific and ethical. Which is why, despairing that well-cushioned Americans would ever voluntarily reduce carbon emissions at the sight of the steep slope of a line graph or out of concern for the millions displaced in the Global South, many disillusioned activists have darkly predicted that only the immediacy of disaster at home could generate the political will to address climate change.

After a summer of drought and wildfires, and in the aftermath of Sandy, it would seem that we’re at a vital juncture for climate politics, a moment when a critical mass of concern can build. With time to prevent catastrophic climate change running short, it’s now or never, right?

Industrial disasters have frequently galvanized the environmental movement, from the Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969 to the Cuyahoga River fire. While, as “acts of God,” natural disasters have long been considered outside the realm of the political, no matter their proximate cause they can reveal social processes and vulnerabilities: the geography of poverty and race within a neighborhood; the negligence of government in maintaining essential services and infrastructure; possibly even the gradual accumulation of carbon molecules within the atmosphere.

But do disasters act as turning points, or wake-up calls, or teachable moments? Do those oft-discussed silver linings really materialize? It seems easy to conjure examples in the affirmative. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire led to stricter factory safety standards, the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 to the Mississippi River levee system. But those are the exception, not the rule. The BP spill was supposed to wake us up to the costs of our reliance on fossil fuels — as were the Exxon Valdez spill and the 1970s oil shocks. Aurora followed Virginia Tech and Virginia Tech followed Columbine, and gun control laws remain unchanged. When disasters throw a kink into frenzied everyday life, we talk about the things we’re now forced to talk about — but what happens to all those conversations when urgency diminishes and regular life returns?

The idea that events create moments of opportunity for drastic change is a recurring one, from the rhetorical kairos to the revolutionary moment of rupture. Hannah Arendt argued that political upheavals are critical to energizing democratic publics, and that new political spaces are forged out of radical breaks with what came before. While not exclusively the domain of the Left (too widely useful), nor universally endorsed among leftists (too contingent for many stucturalist accounts), the theory of the event is perhaps best developed by the soixante-huitards. Alain Badiou thinks that occasions of thinking through politics are rare, but argues that events, in rupturing the flow of the everyday, could suggest new approaches to political thought and action. Jacques Rancière likewise argues that political moments, while fleeting and emerging only in times of tension, break the concept of who rules and expose previously unseen political actors. They are the foundation of democracy.

Crises and disasters are of particular interest to politics that seek to transform embedded institutions and practices, whether radical or reformist. They bring underlying processes and patterns to the surface and shake the foundations of the status quo, offering a view of how things might be reconstructed differently — and the chance to do so. Lenin’s exhortation to revolution in “The Crisis Has Matured,” Rahm Emanuel’s admonition never to let a crisis go to waste, and Milton Friedman’s observation that only crisis creates change may have been in service of wildly different aims, but their strategies have much in common. These crises are typically seen as human-instigated — financial collapses and wars and so on — but the always-dubious distinction between “natural” and “manmade” disasters (is a bread riot a natural disaster?) is increasingly obsolete. Kairos means “weather” as well as “opportunity.” And at a time when catastrophe is predicted for one socioecological system after another, when transformative change seems necessary for human survival, a theory of rapid change has obvious appeal.

The nature of that change, however, depends on who wakes up and what they see. Naomi Klein’s dark picture of “disaster capitalism” depicts rapacious investors waiting in the wings, ready to seize public assets while communities are distracted by disaster’s aftermath. Crises can provide grounds on which emergency action and powers are justified and frequently entrenched, as we well know. Yet while disasters are nearly always most damaging to those who have little political power, they also can also be a force for more inclusive, democratic models of decision-making. They create breaks that can allow alternative forms of social and political organization to emerge. They exacerbate internal tensions that can spur political unrest and force authorities to confront public questioning. They can result in new rights claims as citizens demand that their governments meet their needs, and they can build solidarity as communities come together purposefully in their wake. They can even spur transformations in political thought: the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 is often described as a “birthday of the modern age,” causing Enlightenment thinkers to question God’s role in human affairs. But can they compel new urgencies around issues usually consigned to the back burner, and problems that develop on time scales not aligned with the campaign cycle?

Sandy has inevitably sparked comparison to Katrina, and while imperfect, it’s more apt than many realize. The climate change that makes hurricanes like Sandy more frequent is analogous to land loss in southeastern Louisiana. It’s a process that threatens to wreak havoc slowly, rooted in the history of economic and social development in the region. Examining the aftermath of the two major disasters that Louisiana has recently experienced can help us understand the potential and limitations of disasters as political events.

The Mississippi River Delta is a system in crisis. Since the 1930s, an area of coastal Louisiana roughly the size of Delaware has disappeared into the Gulf, largely as a result of the very processes that made much of the region habitable and prosperous. The levees that protect homes from flooding also block the buildup of sediment necessary to rebuild ever-shifting delta land. Wetlands have been drained for housing development built on concrete slabs that sink into the soft ground. Perhaps most significantly, thousands of miles of oil and gas canals crisscross coastal wetlands, and past oil and gas extraction caused interior wetlands to subside. On top of all that is sea level rise. At the current rate, it’s estimated that one-third of existing coastal land will be gone by 2050, the consequences of which will be staggering: thousands of miles of wetland ecosystems subsumed into Gulf waters, close to a million people living in coastal communities forced to migrate, and New Orleans made even more vulnerable to hurricanes and flooding.

In The Ravaging Tide, Mike Tidwell wrote that those who were concerned about coastal land loss had long thought “maybe it’ll take a catastrophic hurricane wiping out New Orleans before we get the national attention and federal funding” needed for the state’s neglected coastal restoration plan. Then the catastrophic hurricane happened, made considerably worse by the lack of wetlands to absorb storm surge, and Louisiana got plenty of national attention and money for rebuilding, but relatively little for coastal restoration. Then a few years later, one of BP’s deepwater drilling rigs blew, and while it wasn’t remotely natural, the coast was once again in crisis. It seemed destined to be a moment of reckoning, a time when all the intertwined social and ecological problems plaguing the Gulf, now laid bare, could at last be tackled.

Many noted the shock that resulted from recognizing scenes of destruction once thought the province of other, poorer countries, and the way that long-ignored issues — racial and economic inequality after Katrina, fossil fuel dependence after BP — were suddenly on the political agenda. In other elements of the post-Katrina landscape, disaster capitalism appeared to be in full force: New Orleans’s public hospital, healthcare, and schools had been privatized, diminished, or destroyed, with officials citing the opportunity for reform in each case.

But could disasters also focus public attention on the creeping crisis that threatened the region’s future one foot of marshland at a time? In that respect, Katrina and BP seemed like potential moments for transformation, when people would be energized around issues they’d once dismissed as the province of environmentalists.

The reality has been more complicated. Awareness and understanding of the coastal crisis jumped, and civic participation boomed — at least among those who’d come back — as people tried to figure out what the future of New Orleans and coastal Louisiana would be. Sustainability is on the tip of every tongue — though there’s little consensus on what it means.

The fate of the first post-Katrina rebuilding plan — the  “Green Dot” plan — is one that comes up often in discussions about the city’s efforts to confront its precarity. Designed by a commission of experts, it was technically sustainable, proposing to shrink the city’s footprint by buying out hard-hit neighborhoods — many of them poor and black — and turning them to green space. But the city backtracked in favor of a more participatory approach to planning when outrage grew among citizens whose homes were slated for abandonment.

The “Master Plan” that came out of this false start includes proposals for everything from climate planning to food security — albeit with little funding for implementation — and has widespread support. But in the meantime the city grew unevenly and arguably less sustainably than before, with fewer people settled less densely, straining community and city services alike. Many urban planners rued the outcome — yet it’s hard to imagine how things could have turned out otherwise.

Trust in public institutions, never high in a city that had long neglected its poorest and most vulnerable residents, was lower than ever following the breach of the levees — indeed, some in the Lower 9th still suspected the government had blown them intentionally, as it had in the 1927 flood — and disappeared almost entirely when the city seemed poised to bulldoze people’s homes without even including them in the discussion. The years of neglect that contributed to the deaths and abandonment of hundreds undermined the city’s ability to collectively choose transformation in the period immediately following the storm.

But there were many other, smaller changes. After years of organizing against the environmentally destructive and economically useless MR-GO shipping channel — communities in the Lower Ninth Ward and St. Bernard Parish finally succeeded in securing its closure when its role in channeling storm surge into New Orleans became widely known. The Vietnamese-American community in New Orleans East organized a successful campaign against the illegal dumping of housing debris and waste in their neighborhood — though the dumping itself was a post-Katrina phenomenon. Louisiana adopted a building code — the state’s first — in large part because the insurance industry threatened to withdraw from swathes of the region otherwise. Farmer’s markets and bike lanes proliferated as New Orleans caught up with the green lifestyle trend, prompted in part by the influx of young eco-minded professionals who came to the city to participate in its recovery — and frequently gentrified areas of the city vacated by the displaced.

Important issues all, but episodic and largely unconnected either to each other or to underlying, structural causes. With immediate needs intensified by disaster, the issues most people mobilized around were those whose connection to their lives were immediately perceptible: the headaches and nausea that they suspect result from exposure to oil and dispersant, the need for a grocery store in their neighborhood, the illegal dumping of toxic debris in the lot down the street. Until they had the security to take a step back, they couldn’t think longer term. Yet it’s the inclination to return to normality as quickly as possible that often precludes significant political action. The disasters had somehow changed everything and nothing at the same time, destroying thousands of homes and ways of life but leaving power structures intact.

While disaster may expose underlying mechanisms, it doesn’t untangle them on its own. The linkages connecting not just Katrina and the levees and the Lower Ninth, or the BP spill and the wetlands and the oil industry, but tying all of them together, are neither immediately obvious nor easily explained. So while New Orleans’s levees were repaired and upgraded, the levees’ role in making the city more vulnerable went largely unexamined; rather, other communities clamored for levees of their own, wanting to build an ever-higher wall against the sea. The focus on the federal government’s failure to adequately prepare for and respond to Katrina, while justified, often came at the expense of examining local patterns of development within the context of regional geography. After BP, offshore drilling regulations and disaster response procedures were subjected to a cursory process of technical review and recommendation, but stricter regulations were never really considered, to say nothing of the state’s cozy relationship with the oil industry — not least because most people had no interest in reconsidering it. Indeed, the temporary moratorium on drilling in the Gulf sparked protests far larger than those aimed against the industry.

Organizers have worked to make those mechanisms clear: to connect fishing communities put out of work by the oil spill in Louisiana to those in Alabama; to connect the health effects suffered by oil clean-up workers to those suffered by refinery employees along Cancer Alley; to link the land that people in coastal communities like Houma see disappearing daily to the storm surge that crashed into homes in the Lower Ninth. They’ve built coalitions amongst coastal towns and urban neighborhood associations; Vietnamese-American shrimpers and African-American oystermen; bird-watchers and environmental justice activists. These coalitions are admittedly precarious. Fishermen working with environmentalists to hold the oil and gas industry accountable for accidents, for example, find themselves at cross purposes when discussing where to divert the river to build wetlands; debates over funding and levee-building priorities pit coastal towns in Plaquemines Parish against low-lying neighborhoods in New Orleans. But it’s impressive that they exist at all. That said, while organizers recognize a vaguely defined but intensely felt frustration and widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo in the wake of two major disasters, they have struggled to translate more diffuse forms of new energy and leadership into effective political practice.

Efforts to save the coast are also running up against the limits of local agency. The clamor for energy independence puts pressure on the Gulf to keep producing oil in the name of the national welfare — a charge which many bear proudly. The notoriously inflexible and opaque Army Corps of Engineers controls the levees and river diversions. Around 80% of the coast is privately owned, in many cases by the very oil companies whose past explorations are helping to destroy it. Funding is perhaps the greatest challenge. The state’s “Master Plan” calls for a minimum of $20 billion over fifty years, and dreams of up to $100 billion, but Congress refused to pay for coastal restoration even in the booming 90s. Raising those kinds of sums in a time of austerity is essentially impossible. As public sympathy for the coast drops as the disasters grow more distant with time, advocates argue for restoration in terms of the continued survival of the oil and gas industry. Paradoxically, the oil spill offers the best shot the coast has: Clean Water Act fines could direct between $5 and $21 billion in its direction. Partially as a result of concerted local organizing, 80% of that would go towards coastal restoration under the recently passed RESTORE Act. Even split between the five affected states, that’s enough to at least begin work on long-planned projects — but which ones?

Because while almost everyone is now happy to support coastal restoration in vaguely outlined theory, the devil is, as usual, in the details: identifying root causes, devising effective solutions, allocating financial responsibility. After years of conversation, people want something to happen, but the most effective changes will take years to implement and may never be reassuringly visible. Oil industry-backed politicians want to get behind short-term projects that create the appearance of action regardless of the outcome — like barrier islands, which look reassuringly sturdy but erode quickly. And when every politician claims to be doing something about the coast, the issue loses much of its hold on the public as a political issue that requires continued discussion.

The window of opportunity is closing, and the more time that elapses, as the urgent solidarity that crisis arouses subsides, the more durable the status quo appears. The long-term future of the city and the coast remain in doubt, particularly with climate change looming over all efforts. Some people have given up hope. On the other hand, recognizing long odds can be empowering, in a nothing-to-lose kind of way; many of the alliances currently being forged are emerging because the task is simultaneously both urgent and impossible. In a state dominated by private interests, challenging politics as usual requires that communities connect across and beyond existing arrangements and locations. And while the region’s politics may not have been transformed overnight, many individuals have been politicized and invigorated.

While narratives of doom and renaissance compete to define the legacy of Katrina and BP, the disasters aren’t over yet. Destruction lingers, and so does anger. Some of the most significant effects may not reveal themselves for months, years, or decades afterwards; in retrospect, we may see Katrina as the starting point of a new, broader environmental consciousness and movement in the Gulf Coast and beyond. But time is of the essence, and for now, the major question is whether the momentum can be maintained and the publics that have emerged can be sustained long enough to halt the coast’s slow collapse — or long enough to incite action after the next disaster. Whether even that will be enough isn’t clear. We can build a paradise in hell even as the sulfur smolders.

The conversations going on right now in Louisiana are the ones that we’ll have to face everywhere soon. Where do we rebuild and where do we retreat? What jobs, homes, ways of life will be lost, and what will replace them? How do we evolve catastrophic models of production and consumption? How do we seek alternative futures when faced with hegemonic political foes?

The work disasters are currently expected to do for climate, though, isn’t so much political as pedagogical. Disaster is supposed to demonstrate what the science tells us we can expect from a warmer world. But the problem with disaster as education is that not everyone learns the same thing. Those lessons are strongly shaped by pre-disaster conditions: the narratives they use to interpret the way the world works and why disasters happen, the self-identity and social context that shape those narratives, their expectations for how change might occur and whether it’s desirable, and how they’ve weathered past crises. In general, quick-onset events, like hurricanes and tornadoes, are particularly unlikely to have political impacts; they get more attention but are seen as exceptional, and tend to result in technical reforms. Slower disasters — drought and heat waves, depressions and epidemics — are more frequently perceived as political spaces as they become the norm. Either way, it’s only exceptionally large disasters that have any lasting political influence at all.

So when George Marshall, a British climate activist, interviewed people in Bastrop, Texas, a conservative community ravaged by fires as a result of 2011’s disastrous drought, he found that only one person — the mayor — connected the fires to anthropogenic climate change. Rather, most people spoke of their pride in their community’s ability to overcome adversity and recover quickly. There, and in places like it, a push for climate action would more likely be perceived as callous, exploitative, and pejoratively political than a moment of truth and awakening. How people understand disaster is of considerable significance in a world where they happen more frequently. Many — perhaps most — still view natural disasters as apolitical tragedies: a time when talking about politics is crass and opportunistic, and campaigns are suspended.

Still, there are no perfect opportunities, and climate organizations certainly see this as a key time, aiming to counter disaster capitalism with disaster activism. The geographical area affected by even severe disasters tends to be limited, so post-disaster change usually happens at the subnational level, but with so many parts of the country affected by disaster of one kind or another, climate organizations have been working to connect affected communities and construct a narrative around extreme weather. The broader conversation about climate might not happen right away, but as patterns begin to emerge, and individual fires and floods are seen as more than freak occurrences, the slow-disaster space for politics may emerge. The conversation may not be here, but it’s coming. We need to be prepared before the terms of the debate are set and the boundaries solidified: what kind of conversation will it be? Who will be allowed to speak and about what? Who will be organized and around what?

For most American progressives, climate is another item on a list of things to worry about; liberals and leftists alike make green lifestyle choices but tend to talk vaguely about how we need to “do something about climate change” when it comes to a collective political project. The formulation may just be a turn of phrase, one meant partially as a jab at the fact that we’ve done so very little, and also as an expression of understandable bewilderment at the complexity of it all, but it betrays the kind of anything-is-better-than-nothing mentality that makes it easy to avoid contentious decisions. Because while there are lot of ways to “do something” about climate around the edges, the scope of the change that meaningful emissions reductions require is mindboggling. It’s not the kind of thing that can be snuck in by way of an obscure clause in a transportation bill or shoehorned in under the guise of energy independence. We can’t slap on a carbon tax and call it a day. We have to remake the world, and we have to talk about it.

The week Sandy hit, Bloomberg Businessweek posted the headline “It’s Global Warming, Stupid” over a picture of flooded New York streets, as if winking at smug progressives who snark about the obstacles posed by people who “don’t believe in science” whenever climate comes up. Simply believing that climate change is occurring has amounted to climate politics, but the limits of that are coming into view as the climate conversation lurches into the mainstream. Deniers aren’t really the problem, and treating climate change as an issue of scientific knowledge rather than a political one has allowed the Left to claim it without thinking it through.

It’s also led some to claim heroes perhaps better held at arm’s length. The idea that serious environmentalism is anti-democratic is frequently associated with deep green types, but while there are a few eco-authoritarians out there, it’s laughable to think they have the power to force a return to some prelapsarian era. The subtler but more serious threat is the perspective epitomized by Michael Bloomberg, who, in endorsing Obama post-Sandy, spoke of the need for a president who would “place scientific evidence and risk management above electoral politics.” Calls to put science above politics are an easy sell to progressives, and that feeling that we have to do something led to fawning over Bloomberg’s political courage, but it’s clear that he doesn’t consider what that something is up for discussion. It’s a textbook example of the way science is used to shut down democratic politics, and of the environmentalism predicted by David Harvey, which “becomes sanitized of radical content and reshaped as expert neutral knowledge until it can be wedded to the dominating world view.”

But not all expert knowledge is neutral, if “neutral” means aligned with centrist American political imperatives. Climate change fundamentally challenges the hyper-individualist, growth-obsessed tenets of modern American liberalism, to say nothing of conservatism. And with a little probing, Bloomberg’s commitment to just the facts looks less dispassionate than he makes it out to be. How does, say, his dismissal of Obama’s “divisive populist agenda focused more on redistributing income than creating it” square with the staid, scientific Royal Society’s suggestion that climate change calls for wealth redistribution on a global scale? That kind of climate conversation may not be the one he’s looking for, but it’s the one we need to have, and we’re going to have to fight for it.

It’s an old worry about the viability of democracy that lies at the heart of our fixation on disaster: that people are too irrational and unruly to cope with complex issues or distant futures; that they’re neither timely nor decisive enough to act prudently in good times or resolutely in bad. Only educated, farsighted actors are capable of such things, the story goes, whether in service of aristocracy, monarchy, or technocracy. We fervently hope that disasters can compel a moment of truth, because otherwise we fear those emergency measures will come to pass — and, in darker moments, we think we need them.

The way things are now, disasters aren’t opening a political space for the people affected by them; they’re belatedly alerting the removed elite to the disproportionate devastation of poor and working-class communities. Sandy is said to matter for climate in a way other disasters haven’t — when Manhattan is flooded, we get it. The implicit, and sometimes explicit, argument is that we expect, and can ignore, flooding that hurts the poor in Pakistan, or even New Orleans, but when New York can’t hold back the tide, it’s serious.

Where Americans were shocked at the powerlessness of the poor when Katrina hit, we now seem to take for granted that only the richest wield power. Those kinds of critical assessments aren’t enough if they conclude that political change can only ever trickle down. For disasters to matter politically, the people they affect have to be able to make them matter. If we’re to have a vision to counter the billionaire mayors of the world, and the power to back it up, there’s work to do.

Because no matter how extreme or earth-shattering the event, powerful, actively engaged publics don’t emerge from them ready-made. Spontaneous moments of clarity are a fiction, and collective action doesn’t happen because things get bad enough. The disruptiveness of disaster may help create an opening, but the challenge of pushing through it is a combination of ordinary political work — organizing, creating and strengthening communities, building trust and vision — and recognizing where an obstructed opening is big enough to slip in a lever. The die for what comes after disaster is cast in quiet times. Of course, disasters, particularly “natural” ones, don’t wait till we’re ready; nor do they oblige the timing of elections or UNFCCC meetings or tipping points.

The protests against the Keystone XL pipeline were the climate movement’s attempt to provoke a conversation by anticipating disaster with disruption, but the larger points were quickly derailed by arguments over technicalities of the pipeline’s construction — just as post-disaster discussions tend to be — and perhaps by the overwhelming politeness of the mainstream climate movement. Still, that process of forcing conversations into normal life — not to mention of preparing people to mobilize — is critical in laying the groundwork for action to come out of contingent events.

The Dust Bowl and the Depression offer the most obvious example of successful left politics in response to dual environmental and economic crises. Driven by radical organizing, the country essentially instituted basic income schemes that paid farmers not to farm and others to do public works. It was the obvious referent for the wave of enthusiasm for green jobs and a New New Deal in the early days of the Obama administration — perhaps too obvious, failing to take into account the differences of the current situation. But those hopes have faded in the face of austerity, and with it much of whatever tentative blue-green alliance there was, to say nothing of a red-green one. Both labor and environmentalists are becoming more confrontational in their tactics, but they’ve largely retreated to their own camps. In the vacuum that’s resulted, it’s not hard to imagine newfound bipartisan attention to climate change being used to advance proposals for blunt austerity measures instead of radical redistribution, capitalizing on the popular perception of environmentalism as asceticism to justify — or deflect blame for — a familiar neoliberal agenda.

Particularly in conjunction with the financial crisis, climate has planted the seeds of doubt in mainstream circles about the promise of prosperity for all through ceaseless growth. Yet for all its radicalizing potential, climate can be a tough issue for the Left to talk about without seeming opportunistic — a gradually accumulating invisible entity that rich people make and poor people get hurt by certainly sounds like a left-wing conspiracy. Making the connection between a hurricane and a car is hard enough; making the connection to the factory that made it is even harder. It doesn’t help that many leftists’ environmental analysis doesn’t extend very far beyond climate as the ultimate anti-capitalist trump card. The instincts to declare nature a depoliticizing force, consider limits anathema, and locate the real problems in human systems aren’t wrong, but they can, and frequently do, result in a dismissiveness about physical materialities and ecological processes that leads to shallow analysis and glib solutions. We need to drop the environmental qualifier and consider not just climate but desertification and groundwater depletion and deforestation as a fundamental to our broader political projects. We need better ideas and proposals, and we need to start now.

Projections of what the world will look like in coming decades are bleak; they can induce despair. But disasters can counter the fatalist tendency to say it’s too late: it’s never too late, because it can keep getting worse. We have to keep living through this; as the Onion put it after Sandy, “Nation Suddenly Realizes This Is Just a Thing That’s Going to Happen From Now On.”  Disasters have always been happening, of course, but the extreme now seems poised to become the norm, and that they’re not actually natural doesn’t mean we can stop them. If politics comes out in moments of flux, there’s a lot of politics ahead; which way things turn out depends on what we do now. The Left has long been attuned to the social dangers of the chaos unleashed when we harness natural forces through human systems we can no longer contain. We need to use this glimpse of a not-so-distant future to think through how the old struggle looks when the very earth is changing in ways we can’t control.

Last summer, before this year of apocalyptic visions real and imagined, Gary Greenberg wrote in Harper’s, “the climate revolution is being televised — not only in fantasy disaster flicks like The Day After Tomorrow but on the morning weather report. The future is here, and it needs an ethics.” It’s here all right, but what it really needs is a politics. It’s up to us to make it.