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Fire, Flood and Future Democratic Foundations

Published: in Jewish News by .

Experts suggest that sustained hot and dry weather makes climate skeptics more willing to accept the reality of our climate catastrophe.

The post Fire, Flood and Future Democratic Foundations appeared first on Jewish Journal.

Experts suggest that sustained hot and dry weather makes climate skeptics more willing to accept the reality of our climate catastrophe.

As this burning Western summer twists into a fall fire season with no end in sight, with California’s record-breaking fires still largely uncontained, one can only hope they’re right. After all, the entire earth had its hottest July on record this year. California and other western states had their hottest summer, and the contiguous United States edged out the catastrophic Dust Bowl year of 1936.

As demonstrated by the deadly inundation of New York, Philadelphia, and other parts of the Northeast this September, though, our unfolding climate disaster takes many forms: no less flood and plague than fire and famine. When Hurricane Ida hit New Orleans, a power station built expressly to withstand hurricanes was knocked out; the city sat dark for two days, and in a horrible irony, hundreds of thousands still have no drinkable water two weeks later. In South Florida, sea-level rise already threatens neighborhoods as far as 20 miles inland.

Clearly, flood is no less a threat than fire. So, why are we so reticent about drawing big conclusions from inundation, and might that be changing? In the wake of Ida’s devastation, the Biden administration has begun to propose genuinely bold energy initiatives (while continuing to approve new fossil fuel projects, an enormous source of carbon emissions; meanwhile, the stated goal of “net zero by 2050” remains desperately inadequate).

What political meaning should we make of this stage in our general catastrophe? How can we learn from present disasters to prepare for still-harder futures? What should we be doing to focus fear, anger, or anxiety in useful ways?

We have terrifying stories of flood foreseen to guide us. We have the story of the flood. And yet, too much water may make us expect we’ll have more chances to get it right. After all, in Bereishit Noah’s foreknowledge of the storm came bundled with a covenant of life on earth.

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Contemporary novelist Kim Stanley Robinson’s “New York 2140” offers a compelling, but perhaps misleading, iteration of flooding’s simultaneous threat and political hope.

Robinson’s New York is a salty swamp, his Central Park a hellish refugee camp. Tentacular fluvial reclamations threaten the city daily. In that space, the novel pursues democratic hope. Total subjection to creeping devastation forms the basis for a new sort of ark, for radical transformations of finance, property, and citizenship. Residents of this fictional New York unite to do everything the IPCC now urges with increasing desperation in our real lives. And indeed, Robinson’s literary hope finds echoes today in the New York Times’ declaration that “Climate Disaster Is the New Normal” and in its accompanying question: “Can We Save Ourselves?”

Robinson’s latest novel, “The Ministry for the Future,” is at once his most hopeful regarding climate change and his most democratically despairing. In one episode, an atmospheric river devastates Los Angeles, overwhelms all authorities. Angelenos rescue each other in flotillas of kayaks, but democratic forms of life and government fall by the wayside. All told, things go better than could be feared. People survive, pointed like Noah toward a future at once uncertain and filled with possibility. In one version of that story, Robinson concludes:

“The entire city of Los Angeles is going to have to be replaced. Which was great. Maybe we could do it right this time.”

There can be strange hope in a flood. Water is in a very immediate sense life. We are each mostly water, after all.

There can be strange hope in a flood. Water is in a very immediate sense life. We are each mostly water, after all. And the collective character of inundation, its universal presence in the alluvial plains most heavily settled by humans, underscores the sharedness of our attachments to place. We are all in this together. We can rebuild. We can get it right this time.

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Maybe.

It’s nice to think that we pull together in crises. Certainly, we sometimes do. That’s the vision Robinson presents—a city of kayakers conducting floating rescue missions both anarchic and socially coordinated.

Our oldest story about flood, though, offers less promise. Pragmatically, Parashat Noach delivers an injunction to prepare for new foundings and a caution that we will struggle to rebuild amidst devastation.

The story of the flood is often treated as a story about the need for stringent observance. Sometimes, as in the powerful commentaries of Rav Shmuly Yanklowitz, it appears as a vision of human responsibility to and for other species, and a reminder of what we owe to other humans.

We can also learn from Noah how to prepare for catastrophe with an eye to refounding from almost nothing.

How we live together in a hotter, darker future is going to have an awful lot to do with how we manage to live together today, as that future looms.

This means we cannot look to somehow discover new democratic capacities in spaces of disaster. No more so than Noah could discover Adamic innocence after the flood! How we live together in a hotter, darker future is going to have an awful lot to do with how we manage to live together today, as that future looms. If we want democratic possibilities in the future, we have to carry what social ecologist Murray Bookchin called “democratic lifeways,” egalitarian approaches to decision-making with limited resources, into and across catastrophes.

While it’s long been clear that we would fail to forestall a great deal of climate suffering, and while the current round of suffering somehow leaves many hearts and minds unmoved, we still have options for practicing democratic habits.

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Whether swept by fire or by flood tomorrow, today’s democratic practices—like Noah’s birds of the sky reseeding the earth—will offer raw materials for making future worlds together, for repairing a world in still-darker times. Our charge is to prepare for hard futures in part by discovering, while we yet have the resources to do so, how to be democratic together.

Our leaders, and we, are not yet able to get serious about limiting climate change. But the social forms we practice most intensely today will be, so long as our species persists, tomorrow’s foundations of political possibility.

To carry forward democratic foundations, we have to account for both fire/drought and flood as shared futures.

Unlike water, fire feels alien. It towers, licks at the sky, blossoms in toxic smoke that chokes out life. It looms as sheer death, Sodom and Gomorrah razed to nothing. Water is different, though. Even too much water, terrifying and sublime, carries that ambivalent promise of future blooms, of life in the deserts.

More than anything else, this summer’s floods (among which the U.S.’s share barely registers) should induce in us frantic activity on behalf of collective survival—transformative social change at all levels. But, if they will not, and if seemingly endless walls and whorls of fire will not, they should at the very least galvanize each of us to urgent creative action.

We must strive now to discover and live on behalf of future democratic foundations, how and wherever we may find ourselves.


Ira Allen is Associate Professor of Rhetoric at Northern Arizona University and author of The Ethical Fantasy of Rhetorical Theory. His current work focuses on witnessing and constitution writing in the face of climate change.  

The post Fire, Flood and Future Democratic Foundations appeared first on Jewish Journal.

Source: Jewish Journal https://jewishjournal.com/commentary/340952/fire-flood-and-future-democratic-foundations/

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