(originally published in Counterpunch, September 9, 2017)

As Hurricane Harvey lashed Texas, Naomi Klein wasted no time in diagnosing the “real root causes” behind the disaster, indicting “climate pollution, systemic racism, underfunding of social services, and overfunding of police.” A day after her essay appeared, George Monbiot argued that no one wants to ask the tough questions about the coastal flooding spawned during Hurricane Harvey because to do so would be to challenge capitalism—a system wedded to “perpetual growth on a finite planet”—and call into question the very foundations of “the entire political and economic system.”

Of the two choices, I vote for Monbiot’s interpretation. Nearly forty years ago, the historian Donald Worster in his classic study of one of the worst natural disasters in world history, the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, wrote that capitalism, which he understood as an economic culture founded on maximizing imperatives and a determination to treat nature as a form of capital, “has been the decisive factor in this nation’s use of nature.”

Care must be taken not to imagine capitalism as a timeless phenomenon. Capitalism has a history and that history is important if we are to properly diagnose what happened recently in Texas and is about to happen as Hurricane Irma bears down on Florida. What we need to understand is how capitalism has managed to reproduce itself since the Great Depression, but in a way that has put enormous numbers of people and tremendous amounts of property in harm’s way along the stretch from Texas to New England.

The production of risk began during the era of what is sometimes called regulated capitalism between the 1930s and the early 1970s. This form of capitalism with a “human face” involved state intervention to ensure a modicum of economic freedom but it also led the federal government to undertake sweeping efforts to control nature. The motives may well have seemed pure. But the efforts to control the natural world, though they worked in the near term, are beginning to seem inadequate to the new world we currently inhabit. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built reservoirs to control floods in Houston just as it built other water-control structures during the same period in New Orleans and South Florida. These sweeping water-control exploits laid the groundwork for massive real estate development in the post–World War II era.

All along the coast from Texas to New York and beyond developers plowed under wetlands to make way for more building and more impervious ground cover. But the development at the expense of marsh and water could never have happened on the scale it did without the help of the American state. Ruinous flooding of Houston in 1929 and 1935 compelled the Corps of Engineers to build the Addicks and Barker Dams. The dams combined with a massive network of channels—extending today to over 2,000 miles—to carry water off the land, and allowed Houston, which has famously eschewed zoning, to boom during the postwar era.

The same story unfolded in South Florida. A 1947 hurricane caused the worst coastal flooding in a generation and precipitated federal intervention in the form of the Central and Southern Florida Project. Again, the Corps of Engineers set to work transforming the land. Eventually a system of canals that if laid end to end would extend all the way from New York City to Las Vegas crisscrossed the southern part of the peninsula. Life for the more than five million people who live in between Orlando and Florida Bay would be unimaginable without this unparalleled exercise in the control of nature.

It is not simply that developers bulldozed wetlands with reckless abandon in the postwar period. The American state paved the way for that development by underwriting private accumulation.

Concrete was the capitalist state’s favored medium. But as the floods mounted in the 1960s, it turned to non-structural approaches meant to keep the sea at bay. The most famous program along these lines was the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) established in 1968, a liberal reform that grew out of the Great Society. The idea was that the federal government would oversee a subsidized insurance program for homeowners and in return state and local municipalities would impose regulations to keep people and property out of harm’s way.

At the same time that the U.S. government launched the NFIP, a Keynesian crisis that would extend over the course of the next decade and a half began to unfold. Declining corporate profits were brought on by rising wages, mounting class conflict, escalating competition from Japan and western Europe, and increased consumer and environmental regulation. The profit squeeze combined with stagflation and widespread fiscal problems to produce major economic dislocation.

A new form of capitalism began to slowly emerge as business responded to the crisis. Major institutional change occurred in the global economy, in the relationship between capital and labor, and most important for our concerns here, in the state’s role in economic life. In the early 1970s the Business Roundtable was established as a corporate lobbying group. Among its tasks was to undermine various forms of consumer and environmental regulation.

This was the context for the assault on the liberal flood insurance program. By the 1990s, under the Clinton Administration, the pretense of regulating land use on the local level was all but dismissed in favor of a policy that simply encouraged localities to do the right thing to ensure the safety of people and property. It is not an accident that one of the worst-hit developments in Houston—southern Kingwood—was built in the last years of the twentieth century and the aughts right in the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s designated 100-year floodplain.

Nor is there anything the least bit natural in how cities in the postwar United States have functioned as profitable sites for capital accumulation. Developers have been able to derive profits from capitalist urbanization in coastal locations because of what was effectively a giant subsidy by the American state.

Flirtation with disaster is in a sense the essence of neoliberal capitalism, a hyperactive form of this exploitative economic order that seems to know no limits. Some might find comfort in the words of Alexander Cockburn: “A capitalism that thrives best on the abnormal, on disasters, is by definition in decline.”

Others, myself included, worry that the current organization of this market economy to benefit the interests of capitalists, with its blind, utopian faith in the price mechanism, is likely to head in precisely the direction that the economic historian Karl Polanyi predicted in 1944. An institutional arrangement organized around a “self-adjusting market,” he warned, “could not exist for any length of time without annihilating the human and natural substance of society; it would have physically destroyed man and transformed his surroundings into a wilderness.”

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(originally published in Metropolitics, January 12, 2015)

How should those who rule over New York City plan for its future? Sketching out elaborate plans has long been a cottage industry in the nation’s largest city. To date, however, historical thinking has played very little role in this process, which has been largely dominated by developers, urbanists, architects, economists, and, more recently, climate scientists. Environmental history, a field that has been around for a generation, has had no part in these debates whatsoever. But it should.

Economic growth as New York’s raison d’être

The most sweeping planning document to emerge in recent years is PlaNYC, a vast scheme, first released in 2007, to deal with the long-term challenges facing New York. The need for more growth—both demographic and economic—is the major assumption undergirding the plan. PlaNYC involves hundreds of initiatives in the areas of land, water, air, energy, and transportation and is designed to address the city’s massive projected population increase, as well as climate change, and economic growth (Bloomberg 2007). As Mayor Michael Bloomberg put it in 2011, New York City should “continue to serve as an engine of economic growth for America and the world” (NYC Department of City Planning 2011). New York’s raison d’être is to continue to grow in terms of population and land values, to flourish in a limitless fashion so as to outcompete other cities throughout the world. The Bloomberg administration made it sound as if there was something inevitable and timeless about New York’s central growth mission.

Moroever, the Bloomberg administration decided to embrace growth and density as an antidote to climate change, an approach that, whatever its merit (hyper-dense cities, because of their energy efficiencies, can have lower per-capita carbon footprints than rural areas), overlooks the past environmental costs of compact living.

A history of the growth imperative: a real-estate market and low storm activity

So where did the idea that New York could grow endlessly come from? It first emerged in elite circles in the middle of the 19th century. The historical context, which gave rise to the notion that the city could and should grow in a limitless fashion, was twofold.

First, the idea was tied to the modernization of the real-estate market, that is, the creation of an institutional scaffolding that included a real-estate sales journal, salesroom, and auctions (Scobey 2002). The practice of using land as a tool for accumulating capital first emerged in North America during the colonial period. But only in the third quarter of the 19th century did a full-fledged market in real estate, with all the necessary institutions for the free exchange of property, take root. The emergence of this institutional structure, in turn, underwrote the belief in limitless growth, an essential understanding for financial success because, without constant growth, land prices would stagnate. In other words, what the geographer David Harvey calls a “perpetual growth syndrome” had taken hold of New York (Harvey 2013). This idea was, of course, beneficial to those who owned property, the landed bourgeoisie. When city boosters invoked the prospect of limitless growth they helped to stimulate real-estate speculation and thereby drove up land prices and profits.

The second reason why the material conditions for capital accumulation and the legitimating ideology of endless growth took root in the second quarter of the 19th century is that the period was characterized by low storm activity. No major storms struck New York Harbor to set back the triumphalist narrative that elite New Yorkers were telling each other about the city’s onward and upward march of progress. As it turned out, this was a period of extraordinary calm in terms of major storm activity.

Only one very significant and intense hurricane barreled through Newark, New Jersey, in 1821, placing New York City on the dangerous right side of the storm (a result of the storm’s rotation). It caused considerable damage along the waterfront. The storm surge at the Battery is estimated to have been 10 to 11 feet (3 to 3.4 m), which, if true, would have outstripped the storm surge during Hurricane Sandy. But the 1821 hurricane happened before the completion of the Erie Canal and the rise of New York to economic dominance. The rest of the century was exceptionally calm. Indeed, it would be 67 years before another major storm buffeted New York Harbor: the 1888 blizzard that shut down the city. By then, the growth imperative had taken root and so had a new ideology with respect to calamities. Such calamities were dismissed as natural disasters, that is, they were normalized as simply freak natural acts that happened from time to time and in no way the product of the growth and development that had placed large concentrations of people and property in harm’s way (Steinberg 2000).

This history is important because it shows that the ideology of endless growth was not an inevitable one. It was the product of a particular historical context, both economic and environmental. In addition, the growth imperative would have stunning implications for the region’s sweeping expanses of marshland, which served as a natural barrier against storm surge.

The embattled marshlands: a man-made vulnerability

It is not often realized that as late as the early 20th century, New York was a big city located within what most people would call a swamp. More accurately, the city was positioned within a vast network of salt marshes filled with grasses able to thrive in the brackish water. An estimate from 1904 placed the amount of marshland within a 25?mile (40?kilometer) radius of City Hall in Manhattan at some 300 square miles (780 km²), or roughly the size of the land area of the five boroughs that make up New York City today. This immense intertidal system was largely the product of New York’s location along the estuary of the Hudson River, an environment where fresh water and salt water meet and that is brimming with nutrients. Because of the vast amount of nutrients, estuaries are hugely productive ecosystems.

The salt marshes that dominate estuarine environments such as New York’s serve a number of important functions. These include providing habitat for juvenile fish species, as well as for wading birds such as yellow-crowned night herons and snowy egrets. Salt marshes trap sediment and also filter impurities from the water and thereby help to improve water quality. Finally, they provide a crucial buffer to help lessen the impact of coastal flooding.

Although the story of New York is often presented as one long march of progress, the reality is that the city’s growth came at the expense of its once magnificent expanses of marshland. Detailed analysis of some of the region’s largest marshlands at Jamaica Bay, Flushing Meadows, and Fresh Kills and Great Kills on Staten Island reveals that they experienced an aggregate decline of almost 90%, from 23,642 acres (95.68 km²) in 1900 to just 2,811 acres (11.38 km²) in the early 21st century.

Jamaica Bay: dismantling the city’s natural protection

Consider, for example, Jamaica Bay, where some of the worst flooding occurred during Hurricane Sandy. At the start of the 20th century, some 25 square miles (65 km²) of marshland existed. But in the 1930s, the channel into the bay was deepened and several marsh islands were eliminated. More marsh disappeared as Barren Island was joined to the mainland to create Floyd Bennett Field, the city’s first municipal airport. In the following decade, John F. Kennedy Airport was built on the eastern side of the bay and yet more marshland succumbed. In addition, more obscure factors, including nutrient pollution, were likely involved in the loss of salt marsh (Deegan et al., 2012). By 2010, all that was left of the bay’s prodigious expanses of waterlogged habitat was a bit over 3 square miles (8 km²).

Figure 1. Loss of wetlands in Jamaica Bay between 1900 and 2010
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The growth fetish has helped to underwrite the building of airports, roads, parks, and housing at the expense of salt marsh and sea. All told, a colossal seven Manhattan Islands’ worth of open water and marsh has been filled in across New York Harbor since the early 19th century, eliminating wildlife habitat, undermining an intricate water filtration system, and making the city increasingly vulnerable to coastal flooding in the process.

The importance of looking back to better move forward

Historical thinking about New York is thus important for at least three reasons.

First, past developments structure what is possible in the present. No plan for the future could possibly be sufficient without acknowledging that New York was built over centuries on an island environment along the estuary of the Hudson River; this history of growth into the sea shapes what can take place going forward. At a minimum, those architects of New York’s future who are determined to lobby for more growth need to acknowledge the unique historical context that gave rise to this idea, and defend it in the context of a 90% probability that sea level will rise at least 7 inches (18 cm) by the 2050s (NYC Panel on Climate Change 2013). Urban planners envisioning still more growth—and one projection is that, by 2040, New York’s population will have increased by some 800,000—need to address its potential for aggravating the risk of coastal floods and hurricanes (NYC Department of City Planning 2013).

Second, historical thinking can cast a healthy critical perspective on the argument, embraced by New York’s boosters, that sustainability can be tackled through more urban growth. Yes, it is true that dense cities, because of their energy efficiencies, can help to address the prospect of global warming. But the story of “sustainable” New York, as the historical record with respect to salt-marsh decline and coastal flooding attests, is much more complicated than New York’s promoters would have one believe. Keeping the city’s ecological history at the forefront of discussions can at least help guard against a reflexive approach to more development, especially if that growth is destined to take place in the surrounding waters or in the city’s riskiest hurricane evacuation zone.

And third, historical analysis can keep current debates honest. The official reaction to Hurricane Sandy is a case in point. Some of those in power created the impression that the disaster was largely the result of chaotic natural forces. “The city can’t control Mother Nature,” said Steven Spinola, president of the Real Estate Board of New York (quoted in Chaban 2012). Such a statement is fundamentally ahistorical and harmful because it masks the long history of land-making and building on low-lying ground that made Hurricane Sandy the calamity it was. In a world of rising seas, it might not be too much to suggest that historical thinking is all that stands between New York—a city woefully unprepared for flooding—and the next big wave.

Bibliography

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