How to deal with the end of the world: first, recognize that everyone’s world is ending all the time.
Then, take note: in fact, lambkins, we will live. All despite ourselves, we will live—and be irrevocably changed, as we have irrevocably changed the world.
1. All That Is Solid Melts Into Air
Approximately two and a half years ago, after the election of 2016, I wrote—on Tumblr, in a desperate attempt to shore up my own epistemic universe, to try to find a way to deal with the existential shock—I want to build cities that won’t drown. I was looking for narratives that had futures in them. I was thinking of politics, then. But it turns out that the future I was spinning for myself wasn’t exactly about politics (though everything, here at the edge of the Anthropocene, is about politics). It was about climate change, and urban planning, and coming home from exile.
In May of 2019, I will have acquired a degree in city planning to add to my collection of degrees. But I mean to go out into the world with this one. I mean to be of service, as best as I am able, to my city—and the world around it. In 2016 I was still trying to find a tenure-track position in Byzantine Studies. Sometime in the dark after the election I applied to be a city planner instead. I knew going in that I was going to work on climate resilience. I knew going in that I can’t leave well enough alone. That I am compelled and terrified and obsessed with problems larger than I can see the edges of, but which still give me real work to do. I went in thinking that city planning would let me put my hands on the shape of the future, and I would have taken anything that promised me that, right then.
Planners have thought we could control the environment and urban spaces since the inception of the profession—planners are engaged in a “search for spatial order.”¹ The development of the profession, at least in the United States, has almost always been marked by an attempt to make the spaces we live in legible—both readable and understandable—through the logic and mechanisms of scientific empiricism. Planning emerged from the problems of the industrial city of the late 19th century—overcrowded tenement slums with profoundly unsanitary conditions²—coupled with the burgeoning ideas of scientific management and social reform orchestrated by the state. The vision of planning born from the miasma of the slum and the dream of high-modernist social reform is one that tried to rebuild the city from the top down, believing that changing the urban environment for the scientifically-recognized ‘better’ would change the behavior of urban dwellers likewise, and improve the quality of life and morality for all citizens. “City making and citizen making were the same.”³
How extremely science-fictional. High modernism, with its technological and scientific-empirical solutions to social problems, is so deeply embedded in science fiction of the early 20th century… and the later 20th century, for that matter… that it is almost too difficult to see: we’re infused with it. It is in the groundwater. The vision of Le Corbusier, whose Radiant City of isolated towers surrounded by parkland was meant to be both a transformational instrument and an inevitable product of the enlightened people within it, who would live in syndicalist authoritarian communes where both men and women worked and the chief source of community was the society of one’s co-workers: it might as well be a science fiction concept. I think I’ve read that book, or versions of it. I think I’ve written versions of it. Le Corbusier talked about the Radiant City as being made of “the architecture of happiness”4, and the Radiant City is a designed place, where planners work their will on the built environment and the souls of their compatriots at once.
What an appropriate profession for a science fiction writer, lost in epistemic political crisis, to find herself taking up.
If only any of it worked. It doesn’t. Le Corbusier is wrong.
And thank God it doesn’t work. Thank any god you like that the profession I found myself swearing allegiance to is not, after all, solely an authoritarian tool of social design. Le Corbusier did build some Radiant Cities—Brasilia, Chandigarh—but they were transformed not by radical architectural influence on the behavior of their residents, but by the ‘on the ground’ uses the city finds for itself: the favelas of Brasilia, the adaptation of Chandigarh to Indian culture and aesthetics, as well as modern India’s economic and social structures—small businesses set up inside concrete buildings designed to evoke the grandeur of administration5. The street finds its own uses for things, even Radiant Cities.
The street finds its own uses for us, too. For me. I want to build cities that won’t drown, I said, naming what I fear: erosion of stability. The end of my own personal world: New York City, which I love absurdly, violently, rendered wrong, uninhabitable, flooded, through the vast revenge of nature and the physics of carbon dioxide. Climate resiliency planning is almost anti-Corbusierian, by necessity. It has to function in a state of permanent flux. We don’t know what is coming, exactly, only that nothing will ever be the same. There is no ‘new normal’. A climate planner has to respond to the street’s uses, and the street’s needs, and the street’s profound, delicate vulnerabilities. The soft flesh of cities, that is so easily torn apart by water and fire and entropy and heat.
To speak to that soft city-flesh, to speak for it, and for its people, to respect that climate change harms first those who have been already been harmed worst—to practice not only planning but environmental justice—for this I must believe that a planner at the edge of the Anthropocene is a translator with an agenda.
Which suggests that planning, as a profession that I am preparing to practice, is a type of applied diplomacy. The job of a planner is to talk to all the stakeholders of the built environment—the community, the municipal government, the developers, private and public interests—in their own languages, and come up with a plan for the future of that environment which is both executable and mutually agreed-on. But the planner ought to come to this translation process with an ethic, and thus an agenda that arises from the compulsions of that ethic. This statement, which is quite unorthodox by current planning theory (current planning theory would like me to be a translator who is transparent, reflective only) is what the apocalyptic moment of climate change, a moment of epistemic collapse which is prefigured by the politics of 2016 and will be even stronger in the warming world to come, has given me. Planning cannot be neutral, even if a planner is able to reflect the views and languages of disparate groups back towards them, and render them intelligible to one another.
Malka Older gave me the words for what I want to do, the sort of lack of neutrality I feel ethically bound to: climate mitigation and adaptation work is “speculative resistance.” It is made of ways of imagining other futures, other ways we will have to live, and how to get ready for them. There is such a need to convince people to make hard choices in circumstances which are entirely perilous, even if those choices produce unhappiness or are unacceptable to some parts of the group affected6—there is no longer time for delay. Climate resilience planning has to be done. It has to be done now. It should center the marginalized and disenfranchised, as they will suffer first. They are already suffering: Nebraska’s farms are under water. Three thousand died in the hurricanes in Puerto Rico. Uncountable numbers are dying right now after Hurricane Idai in Mozambique. Droughts drive migrations, and migrations drive conflict before them like carrion birds.
Everyone’s world is already ending all the time, is the thing. If there is anything I know for sure. Epistemic shock is with us now. For some of us, existential threat has never been absent. Mary Annaïse Heglar wrote, earlier this year:
“I’ll grant that we’ve never seen an existential threat to all of humankind before. It’s true that the planet itself has never become hostile to our collective existence. But history is littered with targeted—but no less deadly—existential threats for specific populations.
For 400 years and counting, the United States itself has been an existential threat for Black people. […] I want you to understand how overwhelming, how insurmountable it must have felt. I want you to understand that there was no end in sight. It felt futile for them too. Then, as now, there were calls to slow down. To settle for incremental remedies for an untenable situation.
They, too, trembled for every baby born into that world.
2. A Perfectly Just City Rejoicing in Justice Alone
Why cities, when I could have chosen anything to preserve? To devote my life to keeping out of the sea? I cannot help but think that cities are our best and our most inevitable future. Urbanization rates are increasing; so are the effects of density, both for good and for ill. More and more of us live in congested, vibrant, conflict-prone urban centers. Iris Marion Young wrote in her Justice and the politics of difference, “By ‘city life’ I mean a form of social relations which I define as the being together of strangers. In the city persons and groups interact within spaces and institutions they all experience themselves as belonging to, but without those interactions dissolving into unity or commonness.”7 I take—as she does—this ideal of city life as a normative one, one I want to work toward. It is also personal: I cannot stop being in love with New York, with a sort of exquisite violence. It is my home, and where I want to come back to. Working as a climate planner in New York City would be a kind of service to something larger than myself that I love, a commitment like a marriage. A city is large enough for that. This city especially. I cannot claim that I am not partisan. I am devoted.
Let me tell you a story. It’s what I do. It’s what I’m for.
This is a story about the New York City subway system.
Since its inception in the early 20th century, the New York City subway has been notable for its social diversity: since its routes traverse a broad spectrum of communities, all races, classes, sexes, and nationalities are simultaneously present in the subway.8 The subway acts as a location where, in a situation of neutrality (i.e. all of the people present had compatible goals of transit and travel), strangers can encounter each other without the fear engendered by difference. The subway produces a thousand communities a day, and each one of them is contingent—created during the period of a commute and then vanished, fluid and denatured, held together by memory and the boundaries of one subway car: infinitely dissolvable and re-creatable at the same time. The subway has always been this way for New Yorkers. It has also always been a site of difficulty and possible violence.
Artistic representation of the subway, both visual and literary, emphasizes the common experience of community: think of all the New Yorker cartoons of sleeping commuters elbow-to-elbow, or of the famous 1939 etching by Isac Friedlander, called 3 AM, which depicted a subway scene with seven drowsing riders, a man reading a newspaper, and two people locked in a romantic embrace.9 The subway also acts as an equalizing, democratizing force: the low fare, fought for over decades (and still in jeopardy), allows people from disadvantaged backgrounds and disinvested communities to access all of New York life.10 It is also a space which inspires the sort of loyalty-to-city which I myself find compulsive, necessary: I experience the subway as a distillation of what is New York about New York.
However, the subway is also anarchic, difficult, and a site of violence: sexual assault and robbery are still unfortunately common, as are hate incidents (though the former have declined and the latter increased in the 21st century). Places which are conducive to “unassimilated otherness” are also conducive to fear of that otherness. “Strangers bring the outside in,” wrote Zygmunt Bauman in 1990—the presence of strangers makes “home” illegible, destroys comfort, and provokes fear of annihilation—the annihilation of dissolved boundaries.11
The annihilation of dissolved boundaries is coming for all of us, though. It is coming quickly: in the heat of the summer and the melting ice, in the hurricane-struck and the drought-poisoned, in cholera and Lyme disease and how there aren’t going to be any apples south of Manitoba by the time I die.
And yet. And yet, everyone’s world is already ending all the time.
3. The Apocalyptic Is Itself A Form of Denial
Right now I have the pleasure of serving as Reckoning Magazine’s guest editor for fiction and nonfiction. Reckoning is a journal of creative writing on environmental justice. It has produced some of my favorite climate-infused speculative literature. (One example, among many: Jess Barber’s “Lanny Boykin Rises Up Singing”). And yet, as I read through the submissions for Issue 4—on the built environment, on cities and the material, on the hybridity between ecology and construct—I am struck again by how much climate writing is all about grief. Is almost pornographic in its obsession with loss. It wallows in apocalypse.
I am not saying that we should not grieve. How can we not grieve for what we are losing, and what we have done to create that loss? But grief absolves us of action. Grief can so easily become despair, and despair creates inaction: what would be the point of trying, anyway? We will all die. Nothing we love will be un-dissolved, or remain un-drowned. All that is solid will melt into the heated air.
I reject this. I reject it as a planner and as a writer. I reject it because the apocalyptic is itself a form of denial. It is a place to hide within. It is also a kind of violence, inflicted on us—sometimes unintentionally, sometimes quite deliberately by agents—whether they are fossil fuel companies or simply people who cannot imagine a future different from the one which gives them some power and some control—to push us away from the work. And it is so easy to be pushed away from the work. Writing SFF right now, while knowing what I know about the shape of our very possible future, knowing just how bad it might get if we aren’t lucky, brave, and driven to find or take political will to decarbonize our economy and care for the most vulnerable populations who are already experiencing their own world-ending climate—oh, writing about good futures, or even neutral futures can seem insurmountably difficult. Or an action which is just a method of inflicting pain on myself: I want sometimes to simply blank out climate change from the future worlds I imagine, to pretend that there are worlds where it never happened, or never will. Write those, and not hurt so much. But this is what I mean about the apocalyptic being a form of denial. If climate change is so enormous and world-collapsing that it cannot be looked at without screaming in despair, or turning away—if there is only apocalypse, only and now we all die without the promise of and we will all be changed—the rational, self-protective response is to turn away.
But that is denial. And denial is a failure of imagination. And I’m a writer, and a city planner, and my business is imagining the history of the future.
I’ll go back to Mary Annaïse Heglar, because she understands how to look at something this catastrophic straight in the eyes:
“You don’t fight something like that [racism, climate change] because you think you will win. You fight it because you have to. Because surrendering dooms so much more than yourself, but everything that comes after you. Acquiescence, in this case, is what James Baldwin called “the sickness unto death.” Now you understand what Fannie Lou Hamer meant when she said, “What was the point of being scared? The only thing they could do was kill me, and it kinda seemed like they’d been trying to do that a little bit at a time since I could remember.”
What, now, do you have to lose? What else can you be but brave?”
I learn bravery from dreaming of other ways the future might be. I don’t think I—this person I am, a white Jewish woman in America, who has been hideously fond of Le Corbusier in her time, and of worse things, and knows it—could be a climate resilience planner without first having been a science fiction writer. Without having been given models, and written models, of how the apocalyptic can be banished, or reframed.
My favorite piece of climate fiction in the world, for the record, is T. Kingfisher’s “Packing,” in this very magazine. She begins:
“Today is not the day I wanted to do this, but we aren’t always given choices. It’s time to pack for the new seasons.
No, you can’t stay. This place won’t be here soon. It’s already going, slipping away, each new summer tearing off strips. You can see the new flesh underneath. We’re still guessing at the shape of it. Probably the cicadas know, but we can’t understand their buzzing, and there are more of them every year.
All these choices were made long ago. Now is not the time to relitigate them.
Now our job is to decide what to bring with us.”
I love my city. I love its blood, its metal and electric heart, its subway that tells me that there might be something in the future for me, too. For me and every one of us here. A space to dream futures in, and write them, and give them to one another. A space to decide what to bring with us, as Kingfisher instructs: to decide what we each are able to preserve, what bright new configurations we might see come to pass, even shaded with enormous loss.
I will need those spaces, to be a climate planner at the edge of the Anthropocene.
I’ll need them to be a person at the edge of the Anthropocene, too.
Go on. Take up the wheel. There is work to do.
¹ Boyer (1986). Dreaming the Rational City: the myth of American city planning. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
² Hall, P. (2014). The City of Dreadful Night. In Cities of Tomorrow: an intellectual history of urban planning adn design since 1880, 4th edition (pp. 13-47). Wiley & Sons.
³ Scott, J. (1998). Seeing Like A State: how certain schemes to improve the human condition have failed, 54-65. New Haven: Yale University Press.
4 Fishman (2015), citing Le Corbusier La ville radieuse (Boulogne Seine, 1935), 167.
5 Sisson, P. (2017): Le Corbusier’s utopian city Chandigarh and its faded glory, captured in photos. Curbed. Accessed at https://www.curbed.com/2017/4/10/15243458/chandigarh-le-corbusier-modernist-architecture-planned-city
6 Connelly and Richardson (2004) ‘Value-Driven Sea: time for an environmental justice perspective?’, Environmental Impact Assessment Review 25(4): 391-409.
7 Young, I.M. (1990). Justice and the Politics of Difference. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 237.
8 Hood, C. (2004) 722 Miles: the building of the subways and how they transformed New York. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press. 116.
9 Gear, J. (1989) Straphangers. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art. Unpaginated.
10 Hood, 216-17.
11 Bauman, Zigmunt. “Modernity and ambivalence.” Theory, Culture, and Society (1990).
© 2019 Arkady Martine