There Won’t Be Resilient Coastal Cities in the 22nd Century

In the lexicon of urbanist jargon, the term ‘sustainability’ has become virtually meaningless. We know cities will never be sustainable, not in their energy use, their food production, or their ability to afford economic or housing stability to large numbers of their populations. This is, of course, largely by design. Cities are epicenters of global trade and finance. A few community gardens aside, few will ever grow the majority of their food within a metropolis.

The new buzzword floating about forums and lecture circuits is ‘resiliency’. Resilient cities in theory will collapse less under the crushing effects of capitalism and climate change.

This acceptance was hauntingly apparent in the so-called Cop21 climate agreement lauded by politicians this month. All the corporate sponsors had to do was Tweet out the word ‘historic’ next to the word ‘agreement’ and everyone started jumping up and down. Finally our world leaders were taking climate change seriously!

But of course, they weren’t. The agreement was a sham.

With few details of the agreement widely published, most of the public simply assumed it contained whatever magical wishlist existed in their own minds.

Certainly the agreement called for reduction of carbon emissions, right? Nope.

Well then it must at least put a cap on total emissions by a set date, yes? Hell nope.

John Michael Greer’s account of Cop21 laid bare the grim truth: “Last week, the passengers aboard the Titanic voted to impose modest limits sometime soon on the rate at which water is pouring into the doomed ship’s hull. Despite the torrents of self-congratulatory rhetoric flooding the media from the White House and an assortment of domesticated environmental groups, that’s the sum of the COP-21 conference in Paris. In practice, the world’s nations have committed to limit the rate at which the dumping of greenhouse gases will increase over the next fifteen years, and it doesn’t even commit anybody to a fixed annual output.

World leaders are united in ensuring nothing be allowed to curb economic growth. And that growth is inextricably tied to fossil fuels, so now we must design and fortify our cities to serve as lifeboats aboard the Titanic, and we all know how well that worked out.

Like most coastal cities, New Orleans not only sits on the edge of the ocean, it sits at the mouth of a river on sinking land – as sediment that should naturally replenish soil instead flows straight out to sea. Much of the city is several feet below sea level.

The levees that failed in 2005 and caused the worst man-made disaster in modern history were never designed to hold back storm surges, they’re designed to remove rain water from flooding the city. It’s also worth remembering they breached not over their tops, but because much of their shallow foundations are built into sand, something that was never fixed in the last ten years anywhere but at the breach points.

Today, the Army Corps of Engineers is building a massive seawall they claim will prevent the disaster of Katrina from happening again. But the Army Corps of today is more of a project management firm than it is an engineering firm, and is under no legal liability if the multi-billion dollar wall fails.

So let’s say we continue ringing our coastal cities with walls to keep a deluge of rising sea levels at bay. How long can that last? What risk will our cities be in when they’re all several feet below sea level on a normal day, let alone holding back several meters of hurricane surge? How resilient will London, or Amsterdam, or Miami, or Mumbai be at the end of this century, or the next?

Capitalism loves a crisis, and never fails to view each sinking ship as an opportunity to charge for a seat on a life boat. As our cities become increasingly unaffordable for the poor, we’ll definitely see citadels for the rich walled off from the worst elements of global warming and climate change. But like in New Orleans, the tourist-heavy French quarter will stay dry while the poverty-sticken 9th ward will be allowed to drown.

Christmas is tomorrow, next week begins the new year 2016. World leaders have resolved to let the world burn and oceanside metropolises fend for themselves. Make your new years resolution for the Earth. Changing what you eat or how you commute might seem insignificant today, but if we’re to survive the next two hundred years, the actions you take now will mean a hell of a lot to those born in the next century.