A dry irrigation canal in the hills near Cochabama, Bolivia, as pictured in 2008. Photo by Daniel Aldana Cohen.

A dry irrigation canal in the hills near Cochabama, Bolivia, as pictured in 2008. Photo by Daniel Aldana Cohen.

When infrastructures let us down, our first instinct is to hunt for technical answers to technical problems. Engineering. Economics. But politics and social structures are wrapped all up and around our pipes and aqueducts. Same goes for the economic and physical models we use to interpret how these will work in practice. What if simply asserting basic egalitarian values, then setting up social institutions to ensure that these determine our access to precious resources, worked better than even the most ingenious pricing schemes and algorithms?

I’m getting ready to travel to São Paulo later this spring to do research on the drought and water shortages there. I thought I’d lay out some tentative ideas, based on previous work, to help benchmark my evolving thinking. These days, my work on cities and nature is focused on climate change, and mainly the link between low-carbon policies and urban struggles over the built environment. Of course, water plays a major role. As the world warms, sea levels rise. It can get ugly. In the US, Katrina and Sandy showed us what that looks like. In the Philippines, Typhoon Haiyan was orders of magnitude more devastating. But even a wet city like São Paulo, ordinarily used to convulsive, annual floods, can also suffer massive droughts. Broad climate trends are a thousand times easier to predict than chaotic weather. At least locally, at least given present knowledge, climate chaos works in mysterious ways—and through socio-natural landscapes that politicians and capitalists have treated with stunning disdain to make a quick buck.

We shouldn’t just extrapolate from high-profile failure, though. Small-scale success can also teach at least provisional lessons. So I’m revisiting the first real research I did on socio-ecological tensions with a decent resolution, namely journalistic work on I did on the aftermaths of Bolivia’s water wars. And in particular, a magazine piece I did on a water law that transformed the lives of a million farmers (sadly, the website “update” has killed the formatting of the piece). Key to the story is a water engineer who realized, after years working in Pakistan, that he had been looking at water all wrong:

The man behind Bolivia’s new irrigation laws is a tall, pale, charismatic water engineer and NGO director named Juan Carlos Alurralde, known to most as Oso Andino (Andean Bear). When I visit him in a spacious conference room in his buzzing office in the Zona Sur, an affluent suburb of Bolivia’s capital of La Paz, Bear is wearing jeans and a black long-sleeved T-shirt. His beard is trimmed, and his hair is drawn back in a ponytail. In 1999, Oso returned to Bolivia after working for several years on one of the world’s largest irrigation systems, in Pakistan. “That project was very technical,” he tells me. “When I arrived in Bolivia, I realized the central theme wasn’t one of engineering or design, but of rights. The legislative and regulatory frameworks, those are the central debates. To a community, what’s the use of a beautiful irrigation structure if you don’t have judicial security over your water?”

But even there, judicial security is just the beginning. The next, deeper question, once the collective right is established, is how do you manage water scarcity? Or, how is that right made manifest? Is access rationed by currency? Or something else? The stakes were high. When Bear got involved, the Bolivian government had already failed 32 times to fix its water laws in just a few years. This was going to be tricky.

In an attempt to break the deadlock, Oso convinced a Canadian agency, the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), to finance an innovative research project. The IDRC had been working on water issues in the Andes since 1996. Unlike the much larger Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), from which it is entirely independent, the IDRC is a crown corporation devoted to research with a view to development. (In other words, it doesn’t finance traditional development projects such as water pumps or dams, but mostly studies by Canadian and foreign researchers.) Oso’s proposal to the IDRC was a blend of hard science and social science. Armed with a $270,700 grant, he and a number of colleagues from his NGO, Agua Sustentable, teamed up with Tiquipaya’s irrigators to map the area’s networks of water distribution. They then plugged their findings into MIKE, cutting-edge water modelling software developed by the Danish Hydraulic Institute.

“We took a real situation,” he tells me, still glowing with enthusiasm, “where there are real people, real systems, real demands for water—everything real. And we invented a new model called a ‘rights map’ that reflected the usos y costumbres [uses and customs] with GIS, so you can see, visually, on the computer, how the water is distributed and what the demand is. We introduced the neo-liberal government model, and we modelled using the usos y costumbres, and we compared them. We had two parameters, efficiency and equity. And the result: the government model was less efficient and less equitable. Yes, the government model worked, theoretically, when the rain fell the way it was supposed to. But in Bolivia the climate varies tremendously. In years where there was a lack of rainfall, their model would provoke tremendous conflict. The Andean model knows how to distribute the water deficit without conflict, and the mathematical model proved this.” Oso’s subsequent work has had its share of critics, but none of those I spoke to suggested that his initial study was flawed.

So first—yes, research works. But second, what the research tells is kind of interesting. The price mechanism works when there’s lots of water. But when there isn’t, because of climate change’s local mysterious ways, the neoliberal price model’s no good. Those downstream from the water source are the most vulnerable to having their water cut off. If they can’t afford to pay, they’re screwed. If those upstream can’t afford to pay, they just grab what they need. What about all the other ways that needs vary in complex agricultural communities?

So Evo Morales’ revolutionary, indigenist Bolivian government, in which a prominent irrigator sat as Senator (you can also meet him if you read the full piece), ultimately passed the water law that Bear, working with the country’s irrigators, helped research and formulate. This was a triumph of social science and social movements working together in a dynamic political context. And one million farmers is a seriously constituency. But one million people is also one twentieth of metro São Paulo’s population.

And as I detail in the piece, the robust uses and customs in question here have been worked out, in small groups, over hundreds of years. (Or at minimum, if you accept certain scholars’ critical positions, the somewhat weak uses and customs have been around for only a few dozen years.)

What in metro-regional urban governance could possibly compare to those kinds of established grassroots democratic practices, honed and repeated in the intimacy of a village less populated than a single large megacity block?

But flip the question around, and use it as an assumption for a thought experiment. What if the lesson of Bolivia’s water law is treated less as a surprise than a reminder: yes, of course, people can work out and address their needs under chaotic physical conditions better in dialogue than by applying an abstract mathematical formula. You can decide that everyone gets equitable water access, and then work backwards to figure out the best institutional, social, political processes needed to achieve that equitable outcome. Start with the social values, then go from there. Who says local democracy only works in the ultra-local context of the peasant village?

So then how might a metro-regional population go about aligning infrastrucutre systems and neighborhoods and values and disaster practices? How, in other words, could a city reconnect itself to its citizens, ensuring that everyone gets the basic resources they need to survive, and even flourish? The answer isn’t easy. Even in the city of Cochabamba proper, with less than a million inhabitants, I found that residents struggled to get anywhere close to their dream of a democratic water utility. Then again, Cochabamba in the mid-2000s was perpetually shaken by massive political upheavals; and it utterly lacked the kinds of financial resources available to a prosperous mega-city. If the premise is that egalitarian values and cooperative practices are the priority, then disaster governance, which by its urgent nature is already improvisational and ad-hoc and experimental, could make those priorities the object of its experiments. Use the energy and focus of the disaster environment to put equity first, and use problem-solving resources to figure out the implications. Then research and write up the story of what worked. Success in decently resourced cities like São Paulo could make it easier for poor cities like Cochabamba to secure funding from development banks for analogous practices there.

“Social resiliency” would then mean something other than a happy result we still do not know how to attain, never mind define. It would refer to experiments with democratic processes that make the best of a difficult situation, and that take the insistence on equitable outcomes—everyone gets the water they need as their foundation, their starting point.

Anyway—as I suggested above, research works. This is all just ground-clearing to clarify some questions. I’m looking forward to what I’ll find in São Paulo. As in more recent work with the Superstorm Research Lab, looking at many actors at once, I’ll be especially interested in comparing and contrasting high-level government agencies’, and grassroots groups’, projects and imaginaries. I know I’m unlikely to find, in practice, an unfolding of a socio-spatial, processual utopia. I do expect, though, that reflecting on basic principles and democratic possibilities, in addition to the usual empirical research on this and other cases, will deepen my perspective. As the Brazilian social theorist and political actor Roberto Mangabeira Unger has recently written:

We understand a state of affairs by grasping what it can become in a range of circumstances: the understanding of the actual is inseparable from the imagination of the possible—of the adjacent possible, of what can next happen or of what we can make happen next.

Fifty Shades of Low-Carbon Leisure

You’re at the theatre on the edge of your seat. You’re in bed, wiping sweat off your face in a moment of contemplative bliss. You’re gazing down at a frothing river from a rocky ridge. Not every moment of pleasure—shared or private—comes at the expense of something else. There’s no such thing as a free lunch. But there is unambiguously good pleasure—good for the body, for the soul, and for every human being alive. There’s more than enough to go around. We have all the hormones and nerve endings we need to be happy. To spread the love just requires an equitable distribution of resources—and a little less carbon in the sky. Could climate politics raise goosebumps?

Your typical discussion of climate psychology assumes that climate action is more than anything about sacrifice. That’s obvious enough, right? George Marshall, in his entertaining book Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change explains why people are unimpressed by “a narrative of responsibility, austerity and future hardship.” But what if doing what it takes to stop climate change felt good? I’m not talking about the (sometimes obnoxious) sense of self-satisfaction that comes from protesting a fossil fuel company. Nor the pleasant (er…) feeling of clicking an online donation to 350.org. I’m talking about the pleasures of culture, of the flesh, of the wild.

I didn’t invent the concept of low-carbon leisure. (I think Tim Jackson and Juliet Schor and André Gorz get the credit for that—at least in my universe of knowledge.) But I’m running with it. This post is meant to tie together a few little essays I’ve done in the past few months, where I’ve tried to ask how we can urbanize low-carbon leisure. What’s the relationship between these pleasures and the city (including prospects for escaping it)? Also, I made the picture above.

In the middle is the essay I wrote for Jacobin, Seize the Hamptons. To boil it down, the rich are causing the most carbon emissions, even if they live in Manhattan. One pleasurable solution (besides taking their money, and their Hamptons) is to build up cultural centres in the densifying suburbs, and low-carbon (rail and coach) access to the wild beyond city limits. There are historical precedents. See the French workers in that photo who busted their ass in a massive strike to force the government to grant them two weeks paid vacation, plus discounted rail passes (which apparently extended to rail cars for bikes). We can do this.

In another essay, Is Climate Change Big or Small?, I drill in on the question of culture. Climate change isn’t some distant future thing. There’s a dread to it that assaults us now. But the key is to tackle it in the now. Pleasurably! The pleasures of culture and the flesh are entwined. Right-thinking bourgeois have always been suspicious of artists. And they were right to be. Right-thinking fossil fuel industrialism is incompatible with the wild pleasures of the flesh that our free imagination—uncorked by the arts all around us—insists that we explore.

Last, in Forget Fertility, Get Feral, I’ve said even more about the wild, and about how yoking this whole climate project on our kids and grand kids, or even worse, yoking our despair on our kids and grand kids, gets us nowhere. Nowhere! To prevent climate chaos, we need to start now. There needs to be pleasure at the other end. And for lots of us, that means getting out of the city; rewilding not just our land, but our own selves. See if you can catch the BDSM reference. It won’t be hard. But it’s past the halfway mark.

The work I linked to above by Schor, Jackson, and Gorz is foundational to all this stuff. And there’s a whole literature on “queer futurity” I want to now explore for its connections. But I’m already pretty sure that we could stand to be a little less puritanical about low-carbon leisure than its founders have been. A condom is better than a steak—for the environment, and for the body. (Well, obviously there are exceptions, like when you’re trying to have baby.) We’ve tried wholesome optimism. Why not experiment with a more visceral variant?

And no, none of this is meant to replace real, conflictual politics. Those are the premise. (In my day job as a PhD student, I’m writing a dissertation called Street Fight: Urban Climate Politics in an Age of Finance and Revolt.) Low-carbon leisure is the punchline.  

This blog post is so absurd already, I’m just going to go ahead and end by quoting myself from Seize the Hamptons:

We should chase what we want, using what we know and already have. It’s good that solar panels are improving. And we need to point out that the wealthy are the chief ecological culprits, even if they live in Manhattan townhouses and applaud Bloomberg’s climate advocacy.

But cursing the rich and cheering cheap renewables won’t be enough to spare the atmosphere — or to get us out of bed in the morning. The shameless, confrontational pursuit of low-carbon leisure, building on the victories of poor and working-class movements around the world, and mixing in the most useful expertise around, could produce democratic, decarbonized cities — not cramped, dull warehouses, but diverse, stimulating metropoles with plentiful access to the wild beyond.

Yes, there will still be tedium and struggle. But we’ll also prowl boulevards in bright sweaters woven by robots powered by windmills.

George Monbiot, in a moment of quietly feral contemplation.

I’ve finally got the chance to write a review essay, “Forget Fertility, Get Feral”, about the work of George Monbiot—one of my favorite writers. His career advice is the best anti-establishment pep talk on the internet and his work on ecology and social justice played a big part in focusing me on climate politics. I’m not sure he would agree with my review, with is in part a jeremiad against the overly pious “family values” language of environmentalists’ endless invocation of our children and grand-children. Oh well. But hopefully he’ll agree with me that Fera‘s prose is something special:

We might still wonder whether we’re ready to unleash the forces we’ve spent centuries working to master. Doesn’t nature belong outside of us, a realm of necessity to transcend? Monbiot’s prose exemplifies a more interesting perspective, expressing at once a childlike and erotic intimacy with the wild. “The oaks had put out embryo leaves as minutely serrated as mouse paws,” he writes. “The fronds of the horse chestnuts in town, which had hung like empty gloves, began to stiffen and splay. Bracken unrolled leaflet by leaflet like a Mandelbrot set.” I don’t even know what a Mandelbrot set is, but I’m enchanted, and I think I’d like to have one.
“[A] knot in brick-red breeding plumage ran along the sand dipping its head, then took off with a long swooping whistle,” he writes. “A bumble bee trapped in the surface film broadcast frantic barcode ripples: sound made visible.” Or: “[The spider crab] looked like the grab used to lift crushed cars in a scrap-metal yard. Its claws were more than two feet from tip to tip, powerfully ridged and bossed, crenallated on the cutting edges … It bulged with the suggestion of muscle like a Roman suit of armor.”
Over and over, Monbiot deploys the precise vocabularies and unexpected analogies that George Orwell implored us to substitute for bad abstraction in political writing.4 When politics get cruel, Orwell argued, lazy abstraction veils the authentic, troubling truth. Orwell did not pose precision and concreteness in opposition to the abstract per se. These were, rather, autonomous encounters with general principles, meticulous detail and fresh images exposing an active mind at work. “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity,” Orwell wrote. Monbiot is as clear and sincere as Orwell could wish for—and he is hopeful, too.
Monbiot’s analogies not only perform intellectual vigor in general; their substantive threads entwine human and nonhuman activity, weaving the human spirit with creature, land, and sea. Human freedom depends on the freedom of the wild, but the magic of the wild depends on human art. Monbiot’s anthropomorphism of ecology is abstract and encompassing, an enlightened, secular pantheism for the 21st century. Getting feral, as I see it, means injecting environmentalism with the adrenaline of an insurgent, democratic modernism.

Ok. Now go read read the whole essay.

Later I’ll explain how this forms the final part of my first triptych on climate change and pleasure.

Trevor Kluckman as Tom in Buzz (courtesy of Christopher Ash)

Trevor Kluckman as Tom in Buzz (courtesy of Christopher Ash)

I ask what it really means to live in the face of climate catastrophe in my review of Benjamin Kunkel’s new play about climate change, BUZZ. A couple excerpts:

It’s true, an allegorical play for a tiny audience in a cramped loft, about characters struggling with omnipresent little bugs, seems a curious approach to the temporal and spatial enormities of climate change. But this is precisely Kunkel’s point. The paradox of climate change is that the very thing that should planetize us, making us all global cosmopolitans under the hot sun of philosophical reckoning, instead drives us back into the cave—ideally, to a dark and isolated nook—even as ghosts of the blinding light dance on our retinas. Climate change is so big that we shudder and shrink.

Fertility against extinction; childhood against cynicism. These are old themes. You’ll find the pregnancy-vitality circuit everywhere in discussions of climate change, from op-eds to Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything to the more opaquely allegorical Children of Men. There’s an unfortunate gender dynamic at play here. And we’ve all encountered enough stories and arguments that enlist the vulnerable child trope for too-easy emotional effect. In Canada, the last volley of anti-gay marriage ads demanded, “What about the children?” Yes, yes, yes, our grandchildren will suffer more from global warming than we will—not to mention the children overseas, in more vulnerable locales. The more difficult and interesting problem is: how should we, living, self-conscious beings, balance freedom, pleasure, and responsibility in our own selves, right now?


Loading the Bicycles / Gare Saint-Lazare (July 1936)

My essay Seize the Hamptons: We should all get the chance to escape the city and enjoy leisure — without the hefty ecological footprint came out today in a beautifully designed, city-themed double issue of Jacobin. And the editors have graciously made it available for even non-subscribers—but support smart long-form journalism and subscribe!

The basic premise is that, despite the hype, density as such isn’t enough to reduce our urban carbon emissions. Actually, as we’ve known all along, we have to cut back on consuming things too. (In San Francisco and Seattle, over two thirds of emissions caused by in-city consumption actually occur beyond city limits.) Snooze. The fun part—which I won’t spoil here—is that actually, the solution could be the shameless pursuit of low-carbon leisure, inside and outside cities. Sounds far-fetched—but actually, as you can see from the lovely French workers shown above, there are already historical precedents for what we need to do in the annals of 20th century struggles from below. Indeed—there are far more examples (including contemporary North American cases) than there was space to explore in the article.

So—for the fun details, delivered in all their narrative glory, read the piece. Get yourself a physical copy. And come back in a week for a post where I’ll describe the piece’s key intellectual sources, including cutting-edge dissertation research from some of my colleagues at NYU.

Screenshot 2014-10-06 15.27.08Last Friday evening I had the privilege of going on New York 1 to talk about the Tale of Two Sandys report that the Superstorm Research Lab, of which I’m a founding member, released nearly a year ago. You can watch the whole in-depth interview here.

Hurricane Sandy’s two-year anniversary is coming up this month, and NY1 is ramping up its coverage. In the interview, I talked about our finding, based on nearly 80 interviews, that the storm was really experienced in two different ways by different groups of New Yorkers—as a short-term interruption of the status quo from above; and as an exacerbation of long-running social and economic insecurities from below.

For instance, I cited research showing that in storm-affected areas, 45% of units in NYCHA (public housing) buildings had visible mold soon after Sandy struck. But  34% of units had visible mold before Sandy struck.  This is the basic Two Sandys hypothesis—for the full version, check out our report.

I also said that Mayor De Blasio’s administration had in a lot of ways adopted the second Sandy perspective, focusing on long-term economic and social insecurities as he works with community based organizations which helped get him elected, and which continue to pressure him. These groups are happy with a lot of the changes made to the recovery process under De Blasio. But as I said on the show, one area where they are warning that more work is needed, is in providing adequate aid to renters. If there is another Sandy this fall, we still won’t be able to track displaced renters with any accuracy—never mind providing them with the relief that they need.

Note that SRL member Alexis Merdjanoff actually spotlighted the issue of tenants’ particular vulnerability on a blog post many months ago.

Indeed, although it was my pale, anxious face on screen, the the Tale of Two Sandys report was written collectively by Erin Bergren, Jess Coffey, Ned Crowley, Liz Koslov, Max Liboirox, Alexis Merdjanoff, Adam Murphree, David Wachsmuth, and me. Plus research from Michael Gould-Wartofsky, Lisa Ng, and Shelly Ronen. And Melissa McCrumb of Make the Road New York New York and Susannah Dyen of ALIGN NY brought me up to speed on some key recent developments. Just like Hillary Clinton says, It takes a village!

Yesterday, Graham Beck at Next City did a great write-up of the Superstorm Research Lab. I appreciated his very flattering description of us:

a young cadre of social scientists […] is quietly rethinking business as usual in academia. Though their work fits squarely in the established field of disaster sociology, the Research Lab is deeply invested in pushing the boundaries between scholarly research and efforts to make real change.

He interviewed me in writing the story. I thought I had rambled incoherently, but he did a nice job picking out some comprehensible bits—especially in relating the way that our mutual aid, public engagement approach made it possible to see the storm’s aftermath in an especially expansive way (or with a lot of depth of field):

Perhaps even more significantly, they pooled all of their individual research and made it public. “It’s a novel method that allowed us to use a data set that none of us individually could have come up with,” [Cohen] said. “In the age of Occupy Wall Street, some of those ideals of transparency and openness can and should thrive in research.”