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We Need Cities of Resistance: Climate Adaptation Is No Longer an Option

The old adage that a crisis is never a crisis until it is validated by disaster has become a reality for seventy percent of our cities already dealing with flooding, drought, fire and environmental decay

Debris from homes destroyed by Hurricane Michael litters the ground on October 11, 2018, in Mexico Beach, Florida. The hurricane hit the panhandle area with category 4 winds causing major damage.

Debris from homes destroyed by Hurricane Michael litters the ground on October 11, 2018, in Mexico Beach, Florida. The hurricane hit the panhandle area with category 4 winds causing major damage. (Photo: Chris O'Meara-Pool/Getty Images)

IOWA CITY—The arrival of Hurricane Michael on the heels of the landmark IPCC climate report is a reminder that climate "adaptation" is no longer a viable option.  
 
Adapting to a failed system in an age of climate change, as the devastation from Hurricane Michael attests, is failure, not adaptation.
 
My own town in Iowa had to cancel celebrations this week for a recently completed $60 million flood mitigation project on our Iowa River, due to even more flooding.  With the red lights of the University of Iowa's coal-fired power plant burning in the background, the irony of climate failure was not lost on anyone. 

Our nation spent more than $300 billion on recovery from climate disasters last year.  The historic barrage of hurricanes in 2017—wiping out Puerto Rico’s and the U.S. Virgin Islands’ infrastructure, grinding the city of Houston to a stop, and placing Miami’s downtown streets under water—served as a brutal and costly reminder that our major cities along the coasts have reached a reckoning with the rising tide. 

"We can no longer continue with the delusional planning that somehow doing 'less bad or harm' is sustainable; instead, we must actively break from our dependence on fossil fuels and rebuild our local economies in ways that restore our relationships with nature and regenerate the ecosystems we depend on."

The old adage that a crisis is never a crisis until it is validated by disaster has become a reality for seventy percent of our cities already dealing with flooding, drought, fire and environmental decay.   

Cities, towns and campuses can no longer champion the disingenuous framework of climate adaptation plans based on volunteer efforts to recycle, change light bulbs, eat less meat on Mondays or carpool with coworkers that willingly cross a bridge to the future that everyone now knows is on the verge of collapse.   

Calling for a 45% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030 to avert further catastrophe, the IPCC climate action recommendations should be a clarion call for every town, cities and campus to halt their business-as-usual models and re-envision urban planning for a new era. 

We can no longer continue with the delusional planning that somehow doing "less bad or harm" is sustainable; instead, we must actively break from our dependence on fossil fuels and rebuild our local economies in ways that restore our relationships with nature and regenerate the ecosystems we depend on.

We need to launch a new era of "regenerative cities," or rather, cities of resistance that restore our ecosystems, reclaim the public commons and give new meaning to renowned theorist Buckminster Fuller's vision in an age of climate change. “You never change things by fighting the existing reality,” Fuller told us decades ago. “To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”  

No one understands this better than the "Just Harvey Recovery" movement, where an alliance of groups in the Gulf region has been calling for a "just transition" for communities and ecosystems on the cusp of being left behind as a sacrifice zone for our country.  

No one understands this better than a growing movement of residents in Gary, Indiana, a devastated steel city that has received more requiems of poverty and environmental ruin than any other city in the country. 

Earlier this summer, I was inspired by a group of young people who took part in an "Ecopolis" program to envision the rebirth of their community and local economy as a "regenerative city," based on green enterprise zones and green jobs training, walkable urban planning and efficient housing, decentralized renewable energy, local food production and soil carbon sequestration initiatives.  

"You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete."  The program was not just a wished-for vision; it took place in the Progressive Community Church, powered by solar energy, and cornered by four hoop houses for year-round food production and an orchard.  

They called for "cities of resistance," not simply adaption to a coal-fired system that has contaminated their air and soil, but left their future in peril.

"Love song to the scarred lungs of my people," young poet Krystal Wilson rapped, "because in my city, glocks ain't got nothing on poison and hostile air."

Young climate activists in Gary, like those in the Gulf, are giving us a new climate narrative that reclaims scientist Barry Commoner's long overlooked warning for a post-carbon age. Hailed as the "Paul Revere of Ecology" on the cover of Time Magazine in 1970, author of the classic work, The Closing Circle, Commoner forewarned that a corporate takeover of environmental governmental policy was carrying us "to the brink of ecological disaster not by a singular fault, which some clever scheme can correct, but by the phalanx of powerful economic, political, and social forces that constitute the march of history.” Only the resistance to the current economic and environmental structure could “change the course of history,” he concluded.

That type of resistance took place a day after the IPCC report, when a state judge in Minnesota acquitted three climate activists of using bolt cutters to cut through chains and padlocks at a valve site for two oil pipelines. 

But another type of resistance is also taking place in our cities—as regenerative cities become cities of resistance.  Take St. Louis, headquarters of the world’s largest coal company, Peabody Energy, and dependent on coal-fired plants for 75 percent of its electricity; the St. Louis Board of Aldermen unanimously voted last fall to adopt a goal of obtaining 100 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2035.  

This is the first step toward a regenerative city. 

By building on Commoner’s landmark "four laws of ecology," urban theorist and author Herbert Giradet has spent years developing “regenerative cities” as a natural sequence in planning in an age of climate change. “The urban metabolism currently operates as an inefficient and wasteful linear input-output system,” Girardet posited in his groundbreaking work in cities in Europe, Australia, and around the globe. “It needs to be transformed into a resource-efficient circular system instead. The only way to overcome notions of ever-greater scarcity is for cities to continually regenerate the living systems on which they rely for their sustenance.”

Following this regenerative approach, the Australian city of Adelaide reduced its carbon emissions by 20 percent from 2007 to 2013, and is on track to become the first carbon neutral city in the world. The city galvanized a boom in green jobs, developed walkable neighborhoods powered by solar energy, converted urban waste to compost and revamped local food markets. The city also planted three million trees to absorb carbon.

In an age of climate change, such a vision is not only an essential framework for a new climate resistance.   

It may be our only option—for adaptation.

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