As 2014 begins, people in cities and towns throughout the world are facing new challenges. If there is one phenomenon that will surely make the decades to come different than the present and recent past, it is climate change. Historically unprecedented concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere are making severe weather more frequent, contributing to sea level rise, and leading to temperature shifts that alter ecosystems. People in cities and towns the world over are grappling with the early reverberations of climate change, in particular with regard to disaster preparedness and response. The question of how to build and rebuild cities is taking on a new and different importance as the inevitability of climate change moves from contested opinion to consensus-driven, pragmatic acceptance. Strengthening the resilience of cities to climate change is part of an overall social and material process of adaptation that will affect enterprise, organization, and culture.
Another set of phenomena that characterize the near future have to do with the complex of technology and communication that are today exemplified in the internet, mobile devices, and computation power in very small processors. These advantages have brought medicine forward in leaps and bounds, and have – over a very rapid period – radically altered the rhythms of work, sociality, and political action. Municipal governments, if anything, lag the private and nonprofit sectors of society, in bringing these tools to the task of serving the public good. In addition, new forms of an old tradition – people helping people in their time of need – are being enabled by new technologies, even as we question the effect of these same technologies on our personal connection to the physical world.
In this class, we will be exploring the near future of New York City using these and other perspectives. Our questions will be both pragmatic and philosophical. We will study current plans put forth by City and State agencies to strengthen the city against future climate catastrophes and to adapt to the realities of climate change, and in so doing we will consider how energy, food, waste management, and other forms of infrastructure work organizationally and operationally here, as well as how NYC government functions politically. We will read about an approach to humanities and social science known as “futurism” or “futurology”, the study of the future, which has a long history of its own. In so doing we will think ourselves about how to imagine the near and distant future. This undertaking will require imagination and as well as a basic understanding of the natural and political history of New York, which will form part of the course content. Finally, I will ask for input from all of you on a subject of particular interest to me: technologies and policies that entail the conversion of urban garbage into electricity, fuel, steam, and sometimes chemicals. Since 1970, there has been great resistance on the part of local residents to this approach to waste management, but very recently the City has called for proposals by private firms to bring the services of such technology, today called “conversion technology”, back to the City. As we will see, this particular case has great relevance both to climate change as a global and local issue, as well as to the role of advanced technology in promoting healthy, happy cities that are in harmony with their surrounding ecosystems.
Image: Antonio Sant’Elia, “Centrale Elettrica” (Power Station) Part of the series La Città Nuova, 1914, via Wikimedia Commons.