The sea is swallowing Miami, but Mario Ariza isn’t giving up on his city
The Dominican-born, Miami-raised poet and journalist published "Disposable City: Miami’s Future on the Shores of Climate Catastrophe" in June.
Miami won’t go down without a fight. As the steadily rising sea meets a growing frequency of tropical storms and hurricanes, king tides that flood homes and streets, and much more, local governments are already allocating billions in public funds to keep the city afloat.
Mario Alejandro Ariza’s first book, Disposable City: Miami’s Future on the Shores of Climate Catastrophe, catalogues Miami’s efforts toward resilience in the face of an increasingly fragile climate future.
Like many who call Miami home, Ariza is an immigrant — he moved from the Dominican Republic at age 6, just after Hurricane Andrew tore through his new city. Today, he is something of a local expert on the incredibly complicated, expensive, and sometimes unequal process of adapting a place that’s already going underwater. Ariza spent four years interviewing all manner of elected officials, engineers, realtors, researchers and residents of Miami who are working to understand the city’s chances at survival.
His book is a visceral tour of a landscape built and made dangerous by fossil fuels. Modern-day Miami began when oil baron Henry Flagler, founder of Standard Oil, poured his profits into a railroad that brought settlers down the state’s east coast after its completion in 1912. More than a century later, the city is changing swiftly: octupi in parking garages, pythons in the Everglades, houses reeking of broken septics, restaurants filled with seawater instead of customers. Ariza’s world is populated with predictions, scary figures and unfathomable costs — but also, real people dealing with the new realities of a warming world.
Our interview, edited for length and clarity, below.
Credit: Katherine Stein
Miami is a lot further along than some other cities when it comes to climate change. Early on in the book, you describe your grandmother’s 80th birthday party in the city and wonder if you will be able to celebrate your own 80th there. What is it like to live in a place that’s already facing this kind of existential crisis?
You almost feel like you’re living on borrowed time here. You’ll be having a cafecito at a ventanita, and all of a sudden you’re like — wow, this may not be here for my kids or for their kids. It’s like any other kind of grief — you try and put it off for as long as you can, and then it sneaks up on you without you realizing it. But it also makes me really appreciate the moments that I have here — like when Hurricane Isaias passed through, and I managed to go surfing on South Beach. It makes me and a lot of the people I know very passionate about defending this place. It makes you want to fight for it.
I’m assuming you didn’t anticipate publishing this book in the middle of a global pandemic. How has COVID-19 impacted Miami’s efforts to adapt to an ongoing climate crisis?
Broadly, it has curtailed a lot of the adaptation efforts. In the City of Miami Beach we’re seeing furloughs for city staff, the City of Miami has proposed cutting its office of resilience… I’m concerned that these sort of broad-based cuts will have to happen because municipal budgets going into the red will really impact our ability to adapt. With that said, there is a very active and politically vocal community of people concerned about climate change in Miami who are holding their politicians to account. And there’s also a much more sophisticated understanding from the point of view of banks and insurance about climate risks. If I’m gonna build this giant development there, I kind of want a pump and I kind of want a seawall, cause otherwise, it may not be worth as much. That gives me a little hope.
You write about “climate gentrification,” which is what happens when folks living on the coast where seas are rising take over lower-income communities, usually communities of color and immigrants, who live at higher elevation. This is a good example of how, without enough funds to protect everyone, solutions to climate change can actually deepen economic and racial divisions — which you talk about a lot in the book. How do we make sure our efforts to adapt don’t echo the same problems that created this crisis?
I’ve been thinking a lot about that recently, and I keep coming up against the idea of reparations. I don’t talk about this in the book — I talk about sharing the high ground. Ideally, we could build dense, interconnected, transit oriented communities where people of all races and socioeconomic classes participate in multiracial democracy, and survive together. But that’s an ideal, and you have to think — what’s the main stumbling block between that city on the hill, literally, and where we are right now? I have a lot of thinking to do about the question of restorative justice when it comes to environmental adaptation.
Speaking of restorative justice — if the fossil fuel industry hadn’t spent decades and millions of dollars undermining scientific consensus on climate change, we might be looking at a different Miami. Other cities have taken the industry to court to make them pay for some of the costs of adaptation. Do you think Miami will follow suit?
It would look like a very different city, if not for those thirty years [of deception].
I am very curious, given that several mayors down here said that they would be interested in joining these lawsuits, to learn exactly why they didn’t. I think that the strategy of litigation against fossil fuel majors is one of the most dangerous for these companies, because it’s forcing them to admit their climate liability. And once that admission starts, all of a sudden it’s not that these companies are super profitable, it’s that they’re propped up, and that they’re creating gigantic systemic risk. This is like a harpoon, and you gotta be like Ahab. All you need is that one harpoon. Just one of these lawsuits to win, and I think all of a sudden a lot of cities will jump on board very quickly.
Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know about the book?
I think Miami, in addition to being a canary in a coal mine to climate change, can also be a really useful bellwether once you understand what’s going on down here. To thinking about the challenges and the needs of adapting all of the United States.
I love this place, and I have stood up all of my art in trying to find a way to get people to understand that it may not last. Part of that involved giving them a vision of what victory might look like, and trying to be as honest and informed in that vision as possible. A lot of the thinking and feeling about climate change is pervaded with doom, so I couldn’t responsibly not have that in the book. With that said, does it make sense to save Miami? I don’t know man, but I can tell you that I’m gonna try.
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