Transition Culture

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6 Oct 2013

Letter from America #1: New Orleans and reflections on “awesome”

New Orleans street

Coming from England, one of my first impressions of the US is how the word “awesome” is, to my ears at least, somewhat overused.  To my English sensibilities, the Karakorum mountains at sunrise are awesome.  The Grand Canyon, I imagine, is awesome.  To be able to see all of Van Gogh’s paintings in one place would be awesome.  A pancake, or a TV programme, or a new phone app, don’t really warrant “awesome” for me.  But there is something about New Orleans, the city I just left as the first stop on my dash around the US, and the thinking it introduces you to, that actually is rather awesome.  

Time spent here, and talking to people, gives a sense of just how powerful the forces of nature are, and how we tamper with them at our peril.  Here’s a city which basically floats on a swamp, many parts of which were completely trashed by the floods that took place following Hurricane Katrina in 2005 with extensive accompanying human suffering, and which is now clawing its way back to vibrancy.  As one person I spoke to told me, during Katrina, most of the residents of New Orleans left and were scattered across the country (the year after Katrina, the population was 56% of what it was before the flooding).  Many of them chose not to return, although population is now pretty much back to what it was before 2005.  One of the key changes to the place has been a sense that everyone who is here made a conscious decision that they wanted to be here, that New Orleans was a place they wanted to be. That can change how a city feels about itself.   

New Orleans at night

It’s a place that pulsates with music, culture, a passion of the human spirit that is, really, quite awesome.  During my time here I heard from a woman who represents Vietnamese fishing communities impacted by Katrina and then by the BP oil spill, who find themselves increasingly impacted by changes to the water courses, inflows of fresh water, and a general sense that they don’t matter much.  

I heard from a woman representing a Native American people, indigenous to the area for many generations, for whom rising sea levels and changes to waterways made by large oil and gas companies mean that it is a very real possibility that they will lose their land to the sea and have to relocate within her lifetime (she was in her 50s).  “When I grew up”, she said, “from my window all I could see were fields and trees.  Now it’s mostly open water”.  

Refineries and tankers near New Orleans from the air.

I heard from the guy who had left New Orleans the day before Katrina hit, persuaded by his family to leave (he had been planning to stay home and have a ‘Hurricane Party’), who had come back to live in the city after four years in Houston because that’s where his family was.  I saw a group of musicians performing a piece about their experience of Katrina which included the line “I no longer trust in the water”.  The Hurricane Party guy mentioned that one of the big changes since Katrina had been that before it, news of a hurricane would be greeted with a shrug of the shoulders and a sense that it would blow over.  Now word of a hurricane coming and most people up and leave.  

The Propeller social innovations hub in New Orleans

I met with social entrepreneurs who had started an incubator for social enterprises (The Propeller, see above), a place buzzing with young people ambitious and positive about the city’s future and its potential to embed sustainability and resilience on a number of levels.  New Orleans pulses with music, food, colour, smells.  On our last night here, walking around, we saw this fantastic street band of local kids playing on a corner in Frenchmen Street: 

There has been much written about the IPCC report published a week or so ago (here is a great succinct summary of it).  Transition Network’s Social Reporters have been giving their personal reflections on it over the past week.  As usual, the contrarians have been trying to pick holes in what is probably one of the most extensively peer-reviewed pieces of science ever created, trying to make out that it is alarmist, that it exaggerates the risks. 

In reality though, it is a relatively conservative take on things, usually a couple of years behind the science due to its extensive process of peer review.  Take, for example, the report published by the International Programme on the State of the Oceans recently which concluded, according to the chilling article in the Guardian, that:

“The oceans are more acidic now than they have been for at least 300 million years, due to carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels, and a mass extinction of key species may already be almost inevitable as a result”

It also stated:

The report says that world governments’ current pledges to curb carbon emissions would not go far enough or fast enough to save many of the world’s reefs. There is a time lag of several decades between the carbon being emitted and the effects on seas, meaning that further acidification and further warming of the oceans are inevitable, even if we drastically reduce emissions very quickly. There is as yet little sign of that, with global greenhouse gas output still rising.

Now that’s awesome.  And not in a good way.  The UK’s idiotic new Environment Minister Owen Patterson told the Conservative Party conference that the IPCC Report “is not as catastrophic in its forecast as we had been led to believe early on” and “remember that for humans, the biggest cause of death is cold in winter, far bigger than heat in summer … it would also lead to longer growing seasons and you could extend growing a little further north into some of the colder areas”.  As Adam Vaughan points out in his demolition of Patterson’s stupid statements, he feels able to make such statements because his focus is just on the UK, not elsewhere, the politics of pure self-interest.  

The talk I gave at Tulane University in New Orleans.

But the oceans report made me think that I’m guilty of that too.  My sense until now had been to focus on the impacts of climate change on the parts of the world that I see: the air, the land, the soils, the climate.  But it may well be that the most acute impacts that will hit us hardest, initially at least, will be on the sea, given that at least a third of all the CO2 we produce goes into the oceans.  Spending time in a city built on the sea, dependent economically on the sea, culturally connected to the sea, and recently left reeling from the sheer unbridled power of the sea, this moves from an abstract concept to a tangible reality.  

But equally awesome is the sense of human resilience that comes through in the people rebuilding their lives, setting up new businesses, giving their time and passion to the future of the city.  Given the scale of what the city suffered so recently, that was quite remarkable.  As the seas rise, some very hard decisions will have to be made.  The city is also facing that challenges, identified in Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine, of ‘crisis capitalism’ taking the shock of Katrina and buying up cheap real estate and land in and around the city.  The Native American woman told of how many of their houses were damaged by Katrina, but nearby fishing holiday homes, built by wealthy city-dwellers, built in far stronger ways unaffordable to her people, withstood the storms.  And of course there’s the ever-present risk of future hurricanes.  

The challenges are real, but from the people I spoke to in my brief visit, the spirit is there to turn it round and to heal the city.  My time in New Orleans left me reflecting on the concept of resilience.  It is often defined as relating to somehow “bouncing back” from a crisis, a somewhat silly notion in the context of the ‘New Normal’ of climate change, energy scarcity and the impending end of the age of economic growth.  We couldn’t ‘bounce back’ even if we wanted to.  In Resilience by Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy, resilience is defined as:

“The capacity of a system, enterprise, or a person to maintain its core purpose and integrity in the face of dramatically changed circumstances”. 

While there is much that could be discussed in terms of the extent to which the rebuilding of New Orleans is being done with a consciousness that it is being done in “dramatically changed circumstances”, what shines through is a resilience of the human spirit.  As Paul Hawken told me in an interview I did with him today after a conference we were both speaking at (transcript coming soon):

“No matter what you do to nature, burn it, scorch it, scrape it, clearcut it, extract it, poison it, the moment you stop, the life starts to regenerate.  There’s nothing you can do about it.  It’s the default mode of life.  And we’re life.  That’s our default mode”.  

That’s resilience.  And that’s awesome.