Transcript published on the George Mason University Cultural Studies website. Audio downloadable from the Internet Archive. Original interview on 25 October 2018.
Ashley Dawson: Cities that are less economically divided actually weather forms of extreme climate change much better than cities that are socially and economically polarized. So the kinds of urbanization that contemporary capitalism is generating is also a form of highly vulnerable urbanization.
Richard Todd Stafford: That was the voice of Ashley Dawson who is interviewed in February 2019, by Eric Ross, in conjunction with the Cultural Studies Colloquium at George Mason University the Cultural Studies department at George Mason University focuses on interdisciplinary research and doctoral training. This year’s colloquium series examines capitalism, climate change, and culture.
The fall colloquium posed the question “how did we get into this mess?” while the spring 2019 colloquium poses the question “where do we go from here?”
Eric Ross: Hello, and welcome to the Cultural Studies podcast. My name is Eric Ross. And with me today is Ashley Dawson, the author of Extreme Cities, out now from Verso. Dr. Dawson is a professor at The Graduate Center at the City University of New York and at the College of Staten Island. Ashley, welcome to George Mason.
Ashley Dawson: Thank you so much Eric. It’s great to be here with you.
Eric Ross: As we start talking about this — one thing that I wanted to get into before we start talking about your book and your latest research — is that, I wanted to know a little bit more about what led you to doing your current research on climate change.
So if we look at sort of where you started out, academically, it’s in a sort of very different place from your work on climate change. So I wanted to know if you could tell us a little bit about — tracing that sort of development and how you got to where you are today.
Ashley Dawson: Sure. Well, I suppose there are two main threads: one is an academic and intellectual one and the other is a kind of activist real-world thread.
So I’ll start with the academic one. By training, I’m a scholar in postcolonial studies. And postcolonial studies is obviously interested in what’s happening in societies of the global south just to sort of generalize. Ramachandra Guha, the great Indian environmental historian, talked about a distinction between “ecosystem people” in the global south and “omnivores” in the global north.
I know there are problems with those kinds of binaries, but the point that he was trying to make is that environmentalism as a movement is not centered in the north, which many people had been arguing. He was kind of pushing back against that argument and instead saying that people in the global south are ecosystem people in as much as they actually have to live in really close proximity to nature.
So if you’re a postcolonial scholar, the climate crisis is something that you have to be aware of because people in the global South following Ramachandra Guha’s argument are living that crisis in the most visceral and immediate ways. Now, of course, we know from the environmental justice movement in cities and rural areas here in the US that people here as well are coping with the climate crisis.
So, you know, we need to think across the kinds of binaries that Guha, to a certain extent, was reinscribing. But all of that goes to say that working in postcolonial studies, I think the kind of emphasis on environmental issues was latent in a lot of the work that I was initially thinking about.
So, you know, in some of my earlier work, I was thinking about V. S. Naipaul’s memoirs about life in England and the ways in which the English countryside — he’s reflecting on the relation between that countryside and Trinidad and the kind of landscape produced there by the plantation economy, right? So I was already thinking about those kinds of issues from very early on, but I increasingly began to write about the climate justice movement
And a lot of that had to do with the second strand that I alluded to — and that is my life as an activist, you know? From the early 2000s, I was involved with the global justice movement in various different ways, I was attending the counter summits at the United Nations climate meetings —the so-called Conference of Parties every year — which really brought together climate justice movements from all around the world. And as a result of being in those counter-summits, I became aware of struggles for climate justice and the kind of differentiated way that the climate crisis was impacting people. So that was really important to me and set me on this sort of path that led to my book on Extinction and then my most recent book on Extreme Cities.
Eric Ross: It’s really interesting, I think, that you say that because I think we often in academia think of postcolonial studies and environmental studies as very separate tracks. And so I think it’s interesting to hear that they are sort of married together in a way in some of the work that you’re doing, which I think is a sort of refreshing take on those two like very present conversations that are going on in academia.
Ashley Dawson: Yeah. I mean, I think you’re right. I think you know historically the two fields were quite separate from one another. Although kind of pioneering figures that I alluded to like Ramachandra Guha, we’re bringing the strands together. I mean, I think over the last decade or so, the two different traditions have come together. And you know there are pioneering figures like Rob Nixon who have really tried to make that marriage happen and are important predecessors for me.
Eric Ross: So I want to jump into talking about your most recent book Extreme Cities. You know, that’s a title that kind of reaches out and grabs you: “Extreme Cities.” I was hoping that you could walk us through what you mean by that: what is an “extreme city? What does an “extreme city” look like? Where do these kinds of things come from? That sort of thing: just sort of walk us through the kind of basic concept that runs throughout the text.
Ashley Dawson: Sure. So I want to argue that cities are the defining social and environmental form for the 21st century. Which in some ways is an idea that runs against common sense, right? And against the mainstream of the environmental movement, right? The environmental movement has defined “nature” historically as the thing which is sort of outside urban environments or urban locations.
And so I’m trying to push back against that and I think they’re really strong reasons for doing that. You know: cities are not only where a majority of mankind is now housed, but they’re also productive of the current environmental crisis. The lion’s share of carbon emissions come from cities.
And so we need to think not just about changing our agricultural systems, which also contribute a lot of carbon and other pollutants like nitrogen and phosphates to the environment, but also changing the structure of cities. And then, in addition to being a contributor to carbon emissions, cities of course are also on the front lines in terms of vulnerability of people living in those sites to various forms of climate change related disasters, whether they’re sort of slow onset forms like urban heat waves or m ore spectacular things like hurricanes, which can devastate entire cities, as we know from Katrina in New Orleans and Sandy in New York. And you know, the list goes on and on, unfortunately.
Eric Ross: I think it makes sense, based on your response how cities — the factors that lead to cities being a focal point for talking about climate change,— but I want to come back to the word “extreme” and thinking about how that plays into this understanding of urban spaces and urban populations.
Ashley Dawson: Yeah. Sure. So my idea of “extreme city,” it’s not to categorize the city. There are lots of ways that cities get categorized in terms of their population, right? Like a “megacity” is a city of over 10 million people or something like that. I’m not so much talking about the size of cities as I’m trying to describe the particular conjunction of two factors.
One is its climate change and the way that it’s impacting cities, which because of their highly developed infrastructures — and we think about transportation infrastructures, sewage treatment, energy generation, etc. etc. Cities are these places with a dense concentration of highly vulnerable infrastructures that make them particularly vulnerable to forms of extreme weather which climate change is bringing down upon them.
So there’s there’s that one element extreme weather patterns that are affecting cities. And the the other reason I talk about “extreme cities” or cities as an “extreme” phenomenon is because of the way in which neoliberal capitalism has been generating planetary urbanization. [It] has been kind of decanting people from all over the world into cities and has been making these cities increasingly economically and socially uneven and unequal.
And so those two different kinds of extremes I argue in the book actually interact with one another, because we know from many studies that cities that are less economically divided actually weather forms of extreme climate change much better than cities that are socially and economically polarized.
So the kind of urbanization that contemporary capitalism is generating is also a form of highly vulnerable urbanization — vulnerable specifically to the climate crisis, which neoliberal capitalism is massively intensifying. So, [I’m interested in] this kind of conjunction of two forms of extremity.
Eric Ross: Can you tell me a little more about what you mean by vulnerable urbanization? Because I think that’s key to understanding this whole concept about “extreme cities.”
Ashley Dawson: Okay, so when I think about vulnerability I think about the ways in which people who don’t have access to large amounts of economic and social capital find themselves exposed to disproportionate damages. So think about the kind of “planet of slums” that Mike Davis talks about in his important book, right? People who are being pushed out of the countryside by the opening up of tariffs in global south countries are ending up settling in highly marginal land, on the edge of railroad track, or forms of sort of wasteland, or kind of swampland in places like Lagos and Jakarta, etc. etc.: global cities throughout the global south.
So the kind of forced urbanization that is producing the planet of slums is also creating a particular ecology of the slum. And it’s an ecology which is highly vulnerable to climate-related disasters. That’s something that Mike Davis doesn’t talk about in his book, but you know, we see the impact in places like Manila when a typhoon hits the city and marginal populations are exposed to the extreme forms of weather that the typhoon brings down upon them.
In places like New York and Chicago, in addition to that vulnerability to spectacular natural disasters, there’s also a more quotidian vulnerability. The environmental justice movement has been very much centered on protesting against the disproportionate location of toxic facilities close to communities of color and working-class communities, but we’re finding as climate change affects cities that people are also subjected to more sort of slow onset forms of damage.
And the main example of that is the urban heat island effect, right? So when cities get extremely hot in the summertime people who are economically disadvantaged end up struggling to get access to cooling facilities. As a result of that, literally tens of thousands of people have been dying during the hot summer months in cities around the world. And this is not just in cities of the global south, but in some of the the supposedly wealthiest cities — like New York and Chicago. And it’s disproportionately people of color people with low incomes and elderly people.
Eric Ross: In recent decades, we have started to see a phenomenon that has been labeled as “climate refugees.” You sort of touch on this in your response to the last question: we’re seeing climate refugees who are moving into these urban areas. This is a big part of your book Extreme Cities, and I was hoping you could touch more on — or elaborate more on what this is — you know what this looks like and how this is changing cities, in addition to the neoliberal capital changes that are happening at the same time ,combined with these sort of climate effects to create this climate refugee phenomenon that we’re seeing today.
Ashley Dawson: Yeah, that’s a great point. You know, when we hear about climate refugees, I sort of trace the history of the term: it was actually something that the environmental movement began to use in the 1990s in order to try and gin up support for mitigation policies and others, for efforts to forge agreements to cut carbon emissions. The idea of was well, you know if the wealthy nations of the world don’t cut their carbon emissions, there’s going to be a mass of poor people arriving from societies in the global south that are impacted, former — and this is the great irony, right? — formerly colonized countries in the tropics are the ones that are going to be impacted the most by climate change. [They] already are being impacted the most by climate change. And of course the people who live there are the people who are least responsible for climate change, both historically and in terms of current kind of per capita carbon emissions.
So the argument is: you’re going to have this massive wave of refugees impacting you if you don’t cut your carbon emissions in the wealthy countries. What you can see [is] that that argument was kind of inherently racist, right? It’s saying,” you know, if you don’t cut carbon emissions you’re going to have all these people of color arriving at your doorstep and you don’t want that to happen.”
So there’s a lot of kind of inherent racism, unspoken racism, in that argument. And of course very quickly the military and the defense industry picked up on these arguments. And so you begin to see, starting in the early 2000s the Pentagon and allied thinktanks doing all these sort of war games scenarios around the ways in which carbon change is going to destabilize countries in the global south and put pressure on borders and how the military needed more funding, as you might imagine, to prepare for all of this, right?
So the argument kind of backfired in many ways. And so I try to trace the kind of racism of the argument by following that that history and coming back to the point that I think you started with and that is that the majority of people who are climate refugees are actually a refugees within the borders of their own countries.
They’re moving from rural areas into cities because they can’t survive in those rural areas. I’m just to give you one concrete example in Bangladesh people who are living in coastal areas are finding that they can’t grow rice crops anymore because of the ways in which rising sea levels are leading to increasing salinization of the land that they’ve been growing rice on. So the rice is not able to resist the increasing salt content in the in the earth. So their crops are dying or dwindling and they can’t survive on the land anymore. So I mean this is the kind of slow —another example of slow onset disaster — people in Bangladesh are certainly experiencing spectacular forms of natural disaster, like typhoons, but they’re also experiencing these more sort of slow onset disasters like the gradual salinization of their crops, the poisoning of their crops. And under those circumstances, they’re forced to leave the rural areas that they’re living in and they’re ending up in megacities like Dhaka which has been growing massively and you know, the slums of Dhaka above all have been growing massively.
And all of these slums are in areas, which used to be swampland, right? So, you know, this is another kind of example of what I was alluding to earlier: the ways in which planetary urbanization is overlapping with climate change to create extreme vulnerability for people.
Eric Ross: So in the book you seem to present to sort of possibilities for how we can deal with these kinds of things. On the one hand, we have the issue of degrowth: so moving people away from certain vulnerable areas or transitioning certain populations in different places. And on the other is the transformation of cities into what you call eco-cities or cities that are bringing things back to the environment rather than sort of drawing out resources.
Now, I think on the surface those can seem like kind of contradictory things, but I don’t think that they are. And so I’m hoping that you can explain more about what you mean by each of those two things and what they look like in conjunction with each other.
Ashley Dawson: Sure. So, you know, the science tells us that certain cities are not going to be viable in the coming decades, you know a place like Miami simply can’t be walled off from sea level rise and from the many hurricanes that will bare down upon it. And that has to do with the geography of the area, right? You know, it’s the city is built on limestone, which is, if you can imagine swiss cheese, it’s the kind of rock equivalent of swiss cheese.
So you can’t put up a dike or a sea wall or something like that to keep the ocean out. It’s going to come in underneath your wall. And in fact, that’s what’s happening to Miami. I begin the section on Miami in my book by taking you to the backyard of the mayor of South Miami where he lifts up a piece of wood that he has over this well, and you can see the water just three feet down. What’s happening is that the fresh water in the aquifer is being pushed up by intruding seawater from underneath, right? So there’s a limited amount of fresh water. It’s eventually going to disappear and the sea water is kind of coming up inevitably underneath that. Every now and then, if you know Miami, there these so-called “king tides” when, even if there’s not a hurricane, suddenly manhole covers will pop off because of the intrusion of seawater into the city and you know, the city streets will be flooded with with ocean waters.
Miami is not viable. It’s not going to be viable. It’s a question of exactly when it needs to be abandoned. But we know basically that it will have to be abandoned. So how do we take provision to make sure that rich people can’t just pull up stakes and move somewhere else leaving economically vulnerable populations high and dry — or the opposite, low and wet, you know? — and faced with calamity: economic and environmental
so I think that’s a really kind of key question when we can look at the city like Miami and see that the science tells us it’s not viable long-term. Other cities, we may be able to look at various forms of adaptation that will keep them, allow people to stay in place for much longer time.
But again, they’re different kinds of adaptation.
And so I think that the emphasis in the thread that runs between these two different issues that you asked about — degrowth and adaptation — is the question of whether we’re going to let capitalism and the free market determine what happens or whether we’re going to push the state to be responsive to popular desires for social justice and for forms of just adaptation in the face of what’s bearing down on City’s, right?
So how is it possible to have communities be informed about the threats that they face and make a collective decision to move when that’s necessary or to stay and have access to the forms of adaptation that can help them stay in place without being rendered vulnerable.
I think those are the kinds of questions that we need to ask and they have seemed impossible to really address. Currently on a federal level, they certainly are not going to — we’re not going to be able to get the political movement that we need. But with discussions of the Green New Deal circulating, I think we need to ask these kinds of questions as part of a conversation about social transformation and what a Green New Deal might look like.
Eric Ross: What direction should we, from an activist standpoint, be trying to push the state in? Or should we be thinking of alternatives to the state? And if so, what does that look like?
Ashley Dawson: Yeah. In the book I talk about what I call disaster communism. The idea is to challenge the Hollywood imaginary of natural disasters. So-called natural disasters, where the script is usually that something terrible happens, you know a drought or a hurricane or something like that and society collapses and the kind of strong man emerges. Usually it is a man, usually. So white middle class man, and that man, you know leads his small band of pioneers to some kind of sanctuary somewhere, right?
So the kind of colonial settler colonial scripts inherent in a lot of natural disaster films are you know pretty easy to see, pretty transparent. What I try to show in the book is that in fact something very different tends to happen when disasters peel back the the state and that’s this aspect of disaster communism.
So I look at Occupy Sandy and the way in which, following Hurricane Sandy in New York City, forms of horizontal collective provision took place. So you had the Occupy Movement which had been active a year earlier when Sandy struck the city. Activists with the Occupy Movement were able to mobilize pretty quickly and go into neighborhoods that were dramatically affected and help them help one another engage in forms of mutual aid and develop quite radical new infrastructures, including electronic infrastructures, to get aid from outside to needy communitie that were being marginalized by the state and by big NGOs like the Red Cross very quickly. So I think there’s an important role for that kind of horizontalism and for disaster communism, but what I show in the book is that, as communities move from response to the disaster to rebuilding, existing structures — power structures — tend to reassert themselves. So, I think you’re right: we do need to have an analysis of the state at different scales. And we need to think about how to put pressure on the state in a whole variety of ways to be responsive to popular desires for adaptation and mitigation.
And so in the book I talk specifically about efforts at popular planning for climate adaptation, like the work of the environmental justice organization We Act which has drawn up a climate action plan for Northern Manhattan that has all sorts of kind of fascinating components like, you know social centers that can be a place of refuge during a natural disaster but a place of social Ccnnection the rest of the time. And micro grids, which will allow communities to have themselves off the grid, if the grid in the city goes down, such as what happened in New York City during Hurricane Sandy,but will also help communities generate electricity that’s renewably based and which can be fed into the grid during normal times in order to generate income for those communities.
So yeah this idea of disaster capitalism and popular planning I think is a way to think about how to operate outside the state when necessary, but also to put pressure on the state and begin to kind of take over the state and exist outside it but also co-opt it.
Eric Ross: Should we be optimistic about the green New Deal? This is something that’s in the news a lot. Everybody seems to have different takes on it. And I think it is interesting that were finally starting to see a conversation that’s being had at the federal level —whether or not that’s an effective conversation that’s being had but it’s a conversation nonetheless.
So is this something that we should be optimistic about or should we be equally skeptical?
Ashley Dawson: I think we should be optimistic about the Green New Deal simply by virtue of the fact that, as you said, it’s in the national news. I mean, it’s a huge breakthrough that these conversations are in the news. I mean when I wrote my book, the final chapters [were] very much [about] thinking about how we need to completely transform society and have a process of wholesale ecological reconstruction. And some of your questions have alluded to that, right?
You know, how do we dismantle some cities? How do we rebuild other cities in order to adapt them? I mean, these are key questions that we need to be thinking about and it’s not going to happen on a kind of local level: there needs to be a state which is, you know a nation state which is guiding this process.
And we also need to be thinking about the ways in which the global north — which, as I said earlier, has produced the lion’s share of carbon emissions — the way in which the global north needs to help poor countries as a form of, you know justice for the pollution that they’ve engaged in as well as the economic exploitation they’ve engaged in for decades.
So yeah, I mean, these are really important questions. I think the Green New Deal is a really hopeful set of possibilities. The fact that we’re even beginning to talk about this is really important and I think it gives the environmental movement and broader movements for economic and social justice a sense of possibility, a sense of fighting for something rather than simply resisting decades of kind of neoliberal austerity and privation.
So I think all of that’s really really important. I mean, I think that the left needs to push against some elements of the Green New Deal. I mean again, it’s only a resolution at this point a lot needs to be thrashed out. But I think it’s significant that there was no mention of fast cessation to fossil fuel infrastructure, and we need know that we absolutely cannot build out any fresh fossil fuel infrastructure. That wasn’t alluded to at all in the Green New Deal resolution. So I think there needs to be a lot of pushback around that.
And the other major thing is that the way the Green New Deal is framed is very much a product of the the history of the New Deal itself, which is around kind of national programs, and we’ve been talking about the state and the nation state but, again, this needs to be an international program. It can’t just be a national program, for very obvious reasons. You know, I mean if India keeps going with its program of building coal-fired power plants, given the fact that it has a massive population, no matter what we do in the United States, even if we decide to completely eradicate carbon emissions in 10 years, the planet is going to be toast, right?
So there needs to be a massive program of clean technology transfer simply for the question of global survivability, but then also around questions of reparations, for just reparations for centuries of colonialism and carbon pollution. So I think those two elements have to be part of the Green New Deal.
And that means that the Green New Deal has to be absolutely anti-capitalist and not based on a fresh round of of development.
I published an article just recently talking about the history of the Green New Deal — not that many people know about it, but it was first kind of promulgated as an idea after the economic crisis of 2008-2009 and the idea, then partially adopted by the Obama administration, but articulated much more full-throated way by European Green Parties, was that we could have a kind of ecological reconstruction program and it would be great because it would get the economies going again and help pull them out of the recession of 2008 and after it. Certainly nobody wants a recession to happen, but we can have another program of massive economic development along the lines of the new deal in the 1930s.
We need to think about a program of radical cuts in certain sectors of the society as well as augmentation of other sectors. So yeah that we need to be quite critical as well as just trying to support the thing, right? You know, I mean, that’s the major issue: whether it’s going to get any traction in the current congress and how we can come up with plans on other scales, you know, the state level, and the city level to try to push forward similar plans.
Eric Ross: By way of wrapping up today: I understand that your latest project is about struggles for energy democracy. I’m hoping that to wrap up, you can give us kind of a preview of what your most recent research is on.
Ashley Dawson: Yeah. My latest project is called The Energy Commons and it comes out of my awareness that we absolutely have to stop all new fossil fuel infrastructure.
So, how do we do that? Well, you know, there’s been a kind of common sense that renewable energy is getting cheaper and that the market is going to get us there. You know solar panels are now out-competing coal economically and putting a lot of power plants out of business or at least leading to a certain shift away from coal, but the market, I argue isn’t making it happen fast enough.
And in fact, what we’ve got is an expansion of natural gas. We are in the middle of this huge fracking revolution and the U. S. is trying to export methane, which is what natural gas really is, to other parts of the world. So how do we insist on cessation of that and think about gaining access to renewable energy in a way that communities can control? Because that’s one of the really important factors about renewable energy that, it isn’t produced in big centralized power plants. And so while you might need something like the current grid structure, it could actually democratize society and the structures of energy provision and distribution.
So it’s part of a much bigger struggle, but I would argue that it’s absolutely central to preventing planetary ecocide. And so I’ve been interested in looking at the history of the grid and social struggles around energy provision and specifically electric electricity provision, and I’ve been interested in looking at struggles for energy democracy in other countries like in Germany, which is now about 30% powered by renewables. As well as struggles here in the United States. Here in the US. It’s really been frontline communities, environmental justice groups like We Act that are leading the charge towards community-based solar power and other forms of renewable energy.
And the reason for this is pretty obvious, right? It’s in those communities that polluting forms of energy generation historically have been located. So the the desire to shift towards energy democracy and renewable energy is absolutely paramount for people in those communities and I want to help magnify their voices and help in this fight to basically end fossil capitalism and make a just transition towards a society based on forms of genuine democracy.
Eric Ross: Ashley Dawson, thank you so much for joining me today. It was nice to talk to you.
Ashley Dawson: Thanks so much, Eric. It was great being with you.
Richard Todd Stafford: Thanks again for listening to this interview with Ashley Dawson, which was a production of the Cultural Studies Colloquium hosted by the George Mason University Cultural Studies Department with support from the Department of Communications, the Global Affairs program, the Department of History and Art History, the Interdisciplinary Curriculum Collaborative, the Department of Philosophy, the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, the Schar School of Policy and Government, the Womens and Gender studies program, and University Life. We thank WGMU for the use of their recording studio.
This interview is conducted by Eric Ross, a student in the Ph.D program in Cultural Studies. It was recorded produced and edited by me, Richard Todd Stafford. The colloquium series has been organised by Roger, Lancaster.
References in this podcast
Davis, Mike. Planet of slums. Verso Books, 2005.
Dawson, Ashley. Extinction: A radical history. OR Books, 2016.
Dawson, Ashley. Extreme cities: The peril and promise of urban life in the age of climate change. Verso Books, 2017.
Dawson, Ashley. “Why We Need a Global Green New Deal.” New Politics 12, no. 4 (2010).
Dawson, Ashley “A Greener New Deal?” New Politics 17, no. 2 (2019).
Dawson, Ashley. “Climate justice: the emerging movement against green capitalism.” South Atlantic Quarterly 109, no. 2 (2010): 313-338.
Guha, Ramachandra, and Rukun Advani. How much should a person consume?: Environmentalism in India and the United States. University of California Press, 2006.
Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Harvard University Press, 2011.
Music: Kevin MacLeod “Acid Trumpet,” used under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License
Interview: Eric Ross
Audio Production and Transcription: Richard Todd Stafford
Promotions and marketing: Severin Mueller
Colloquium Organizer: Roger Lancaster