Hurricane Sandy: A Moment for Eco-Socialism

During an unusual moment of clarity in an otherwise vanilla stint as the Governor of New York State, Andrew Cuomo spoke frankly about the longer term ramifications of Hurricane Sandy.  Instability in weather patterns will require serious changes in the ways that New York City’s infrastructure is situated and protected.  The weather field, in Cuomo’s mind, is suddenly wide open, “there is no weather pattern that can shock me.”  The Governor’s moment of clarity is likely to fade, but the problems Sandy exposed will not go away.  They require a serious and rapid response that requires a shift from the ideas offered by mainstream politics.

The key here is to recognize the source of the instabilities in the weather patterns.  Hurricane Sandy was not a fluke event, a “once in a century” storm or a manifestation of God’s anger at humanity.  Sandy is the new normal that has been brought on by climate change.  It was appropriately described as a “Frankenstorm” in that climate instability allowed several different storm elements to coalesce together.  Sandy brought hurricane winds to New York City and snowfall to West Virginia.  Such combinations are likely continue into the future and bring with them the threat of crippling urban life on each Coast of the country.

The critical first step in dealing with this meteorological instability is to aggressively address climate change itself.  This will require re-establishing equilibrium between humanity and the natural world.  If the Presidential campaign is any indication, we are far away from such a goal.  Both Obama and Romney have sidestepped questions about Climate Change and their platforms offer little in the way of serious change. Only an eco-socialist perspective that seeks to combine ecology’s concern with balance in the natural world with socialism’s understanding of how economic power shapes social decisions will be able to ensure both safety in the present and ecological transformation in the future.

Here are a few of the areas where eco-socialism might work :

Expand, Diversify and Protect Public Transportation – Changes post-Sandy should attempt to balance defending critical infrastructure against future storm damage while also reducing our society’s reliance on fossil fuels. Expanding the public transportation infrastructure is an excellent way to do this.  This does not just mean the 2nd Avenue subway line.  It means stretching subway lines deeper into the boroughs, building cross borough transportation and reducing, not raising, fees for public transportation to encourage use. System expansion should come along with diversification. New modes of transportation such as light rail, non-fossil fuel street cars and a serious public bicycle program would tip the balance away from private cars. Finally, all of these transportation resources need to receive the proper protection from storm damage including sealing off electrical infrastructure from damage due to things like salt water.

Inspect, Repair and Transform Housing – The collapse of the front of a residential building on 14th street is a sign that the New York City housing stock is far from safe.  Community inspection teams should be sent out to neighborhoods throughout the city, but particularly targeting structures in Hurricane Zone A.  Those structures in need of repair should be flagged for repair funds, owners heavily ticketed for failure to comply and the City should be prepared to use Eminent Domain laws against landlords to ensure public safety. Training programs that seek to engage unemployed youth should be created to both make the necessary repairs, while also converting buildings throughout the City to Green energy sources – especially through the installation of green roofs and solar paneling.

Public Ownership of Utilities – Decisions regarding which parts of the city were cut off from electrical power were made by the investor-owned energy utility Con Edison.  Did Con Ed cut the power off to preserve their own profitable infrastructure?  Will the company make the changes necessary to protect the electrical infrastructure in the future or will that depend on how profitable those changes will be?  What is Con Ed doing to restore power to the 840,000 customers in the dark?  Who goes first? As a society, we should never have to ask such questions.  The electrical utility that services New York City should be publicly owned and run as a tightly regulated non-profit organization.  This is the only way that we can ensure that the decisions made at Con Ed are done in the interests of the people of New York and that the utility actively participates in a transition to green energy sources.

Make Hurricane Shelters Permanent and Organic to the Community – Sheltering people from storms should not be done on an emergency basis. Spaces for community gatherings should be identified or created in each neighborhood.  They should be closely connected to the communities they serve – places where people celebrate birthdays, organize little leagues, make community decisions and also shelter themselves from storms.  Such communal spaces would serve to enhance the lives of everyone in the community not just protect us from storms.  These spaces should receive a mandate to develop and implement plans for grassroots Green transformations in our communities

Such changes will not happen overnight.  Nor will politicians like Governor Cuomo get us there.  They will require a political revolution in New York City, a rising up by regular people who demand a more rational approach to life in the era of climate change.  They will require a new impetus to tax wealth in order to transform the society.  Our demand should be for safety in the present and equilibrium with nature in the future.  The alternative is many more Frankenstorms as both the environment and mainstream politics continue to deteriorate.  Eco-socialism offers a road away from this.

Billy Wharton is a writer, activist and co-chair of the Socialist Party USA. He can be reached at: Read other articles by Billy, or visit Billy's website.