A Book Review of New York: 2140 A Novel
I started reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s new book, New York: 2140, flying from San Francisco to Newark. Up in floating cloud villages is where many of the world’s inhabitants live after coastlines are submerged under 58 feet of water. It is a book about the future written with the benefit of hindsight. We can predict, with a high degree of certainty, that: melting ice from Greenland and Antarctica, the warming oceans, and subsiding coastlines, will all contribute to rising sea levels. There is an inevitability to sea level rise that is palpable today. This is no ordinary work of fiction, but rather a novel set within an accurate scientific forecast. In 2140, Stanley Robinson does what a generation of environmental advocacy has failed to do: make climate change personal.
The book is focused on Madison Square, the Met building in particular. Each chapter is narrated by a different character: the building manager, an intertidal derivatives trader, a cloud TV star, a city bureaucrat with political ambitions, two orphaned boys, a NYPD inspector, and two homeless computer programmers. The story includes a treasure hunt, kidnapping, romance, politics, and high finance, interspersed with an additional narrator, the “citizen,” who affords Stanley Robinson the opportunity to punch his message home. 2140 describes two “pulses” of sea level rise: the first increase of ten feet occurs between 2052 to 2061; the next 40 feet arrive at the beginning of the 2100’s.
The site of my current hotel in Chelsea (a Manhattan neighborhood) is at the epicenter of where many buildings in 2140 “melt” into the Hudson. The book opens one’s senses to the impacts of climate change. As one of the protagonists reaches the site of a downed building they describe how “the ordinary ammoniac reek of a tidal flat was joined by another smell, maybe creosote, with notes of asbestos, cracked wood, smashed brick, crumbled concrete, twisted rusty steel, and the stale air of moldy rooms broken open to the day like rotten eggs. Yes, a fallen intertidal building. They have a characteristic smell.”
Tyranny of Sunk Costs
Why would anyone be spending billions of dollars to construct residential skyscrapers in an area we know will be underwater by the end of this century? The answer, money, is a critical focus of 2041.
The Dow, NASDAQ, FTSE and other gauges of stock market performance are now used as a proxy for not just economic health but for the health of everything. During the first 100 days of the Trump Administration there has been a nearly 5 percent gain in the S&P 500. It’s not because society is now less divided, or because educational excellence has increased, or because the air we breathe is any cleaner. No, the reason for market exuberance is Trump’s promise to cut regulations at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). At a time of ecological free fall, how can eliminating environmental and other protections be a positive signal to the stock market?
In 2140, Stanley Robinson reserves his greatest derision for capitalism’s role in creating the climate calamity and for those who profit from this human and ecological disaster. According to 2140’s “citizen,” capitalism ensures “prices are systematically low, the result of collusion between buyers and sellers, who agree to fuck future generations so that they can get what they want, which is cheap stuff and profits both.” In the Cold War’s battle for ideological supremacy, capitalism triumphed and this system for accumulating cash and making bets was ordained with mythical values. Every weekday, when Kai Ryssdal does the “Numbers,” we buy in to the myth that an upward tick in the S&P 500, means the world is doing better. Unfortunately, this couldn’t be further from the truth: capitalism doesn’t care about the environment or anything else.
2140 explains why the world’s richest one percent did not take concerted action to avert the climate crisis: “Am I saying that the floods, the worst catastrophe in human history, equivalent or greater to the twentieth century’s wars in their devastation, was actually good for capitalism? Yes I am.” The huge rise in sea levels “had been bad for people, most of them. But at this point the 400 richest people on the planet owned half the planet’s wealth, and the top one percent had fully 80 percent of the world’s wealth. For them it wasn’t so bad.” The rich in 2140 are not only richer, but hardly inconvenienced by climate change at all. But as 2140 reminds us, “money isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Everything is not fungible to everything else. Many things can’t be bought. Money isn’t time, it isn’t security, it isn’t health. You can’t buy any of those things. You can’t buy community or a sense of home.”
Stanley Robinson believes we failed to take advantage of the 2008 financial crash as a means to slow the release of greenhouse gases and save the planet from the fate awaiting us in 2140. Every time there is an economic meltdown “there’s an opportunity to seize the reins and change direction, but up until now we’ve chickened out, and besides, our government has been bought by the people causing the crash.” If the US government had obtained equity from the failed banks in exchange for bailing them out, as happened with GM, we would have some leverage to rewrite the rules by which money is lent. Instead, we gave the banks one hundred cents on the dollar, with no strings attached. The economic crash in 2140 is sparked not by subprime mortgages, but rather by a bubble in risky submarine mortgages (for intertidal properties still underwater).
When Hurricane Fyodor hits in 2141, tens of thousands are made homeless. After camping out in central park, the climate refugees demand to be housed in vacant residential towers. These skyscrapers for the super-rich are only occupied by their owners for a few days a year and are protected by private armies. This results in a backlash and eventual “victory of state over finance,” in which Congress passes “a so-called Piketty tax, a progressive tax levied not just on incomes but on capital assets … To prevent capital from fleeing to tax havens, a capital flight penalty was also made law.” 2140, is a primer on complex financial issues, from derivatives to global liquidity, knitted into a swashbuckling novel.
Expensive or Priceless?
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina shocked the nation with the carnage it wrought; but being the first “super storm”, we came up with myriad reasons for its uniqueness: the levies were old, the response was shambolic, it was a “hundred year storm.” But Katrina did prompt action. The next year, the Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC) published the first maps depicting projections of sea level rise for the San Francisco area. The vivid cartographical depictions detailed the impacts of one meter of sea level rise: both the big airports in San Francisco and Oakland (SFO and OAK) were submerged as well as a lot of expensive real estate in Silicon Valley. Will Travers, who directed BCDC at the time, remembers “facing a firestorm of opposition. Their first reaction is that the flooding must be stopped!” This was followed shortly by “widespread suspicion that BCDC was trying to use sea level rise as a way of expanding its regulatory reach to include the vast area that could be flooded in the future.” It took four years of nerve calming before BCDC finally approved the maps and an action plan. Then in 2012, Hurricane Sandy hit New York City. It was so terrifying we named it the “Frankenstorm”. Then somehow, we forgot. With each passing year, climate denial has only become more in vogue.
In 2140, Stanley Robinson makes a key psychological observation about why we can’t imagine “a catastrophe will hit you until it does.” This condition is a product of evolution which, “has kindly given you a strategically located mental blind spot, an inability to imagine future disasters in any way you can really believe.” Without this aporia, or “not seeing,” we would be “stricken paralytic with fear at all times.” This is hardwired into our brains “because there’re some guaranteed catastrophes bearing down on you that you aren’t going to be able to avoid (i.e. death).” Climate change engages a conflict between two opposing parts of our brain. We are given information about the greenhouse effect that we know to be true. We then ignore these facts by maneuvering into our blind spot. Climate deniers aren’t necessarily anti-science, they are anti-science that shows really bad things happening. People used to grasp at myths as a way of explaining reality. Today, we choose to believe in fantasies as way of avoiding future realities.
Escalation of Commitment
At a time when Trump is furiously lobbying for a wall to separate us from Mexico, nations, like Holland, are looking at how to build walls to protect them from advancing seas. It turns out that both kinds of defenses are misguided. Neither will protect us from the changing world. The lesson from 2140, is that sea walls can delay urban flooding for maybe a decade, but when the berms finally collapse, the devastation is magnified significantly. As Stanley Robinson concludes, “anyone who tried on a regular professional basis to fight the sea in any capacity whatsoever always admitted that the sea always won in the end, that its victory was merely a matter of time.” In 2140, this is equally true for the huge influx of “internal climate refugees” coming from other parts of America, who are no more contained by walls than the sea.
We can’t stop the sea. But we can ensure that cities require developers to construct climate resilient buildings and infrastructure. In 2140, the structures that stand up best to the rising seas, are those that take advantage of advanced engineering and new materials; or those built on higher ground. Today, there is significant pushback from developers who don’t want to pay for the extra costs involved in sea-level-ready buildings. These same property developers will, no doubt, be the first to ask tax payers to foot the bill for large engineered solutions, like flood gates. We need to resist the urge of fixing problems for the one percent. They will be just fine. Instead, our focus must be in making sure we do everything within in our capacity to slow the combustion of fossil fuels and at the same time build resilience into every facet of our built environment.
In 2140, there’s no sand on the new coastlines, so creating beaches is a full time job. Endangered species are ferried to new habitats only to be confronted by ecological purists. Both of these Sisyphean tasks are part of a new reality where “herds of de-extincted mammoths” roam the tundra, food is grown on rooftops; and, “the giant vestiges of the antediluvian world seemed magical.” Stanley Robinson does not fill us with manufactured optimism. This is a sobering book in which “there are no happy endings! Because there’re no endings! And possibly there is no happiness either! Except perhaps in some odd chance moment, dawn in the clean washed street, midnight out on the river, or more likely in the regarding of some past time, some moment encased in a cyst of nostalgia, glimpsed in the rearview mirror as you fly away from it. Could be happiness is always retrospective.”
In this biography of the future, our best hope is to move away from the imperative of more as better, and instead pursue a Leopoldian ethic: “what’s good is what’s good for the land.” As described by Stanley Robinson, this requires us to “love land the way you love your mother… the way you loved your child, or yourself. Because it was you anyway. It took knowing all the other parts of your self so well that nothing was misunderstood or exploited, and everything was treated respectfully.”
The images of 2140 continue to haunt me. Now that we know what the future may hold, we have the opportunity to turn that reality into fiction.
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