Adapting to Disaster

An eerie suspense hangs over this Post-Puerto Rico moment.  Seas rising, spirits falling.  Awareness dawning, self-destruction by carbon, full-steaming ahead.  This week, we’re staring down climate dystopias with a motley crew of imaginative thinkers.

The “cli-fi” novelist Kim Stanley Robinson strikes a keynote this hour: that the future—and maybe a point of no return—have arrived way ahead of schedule.  He has scripted that future in vivid detail in a cult novel called New York 2140Manhattan, half-drowned but re-gentrifying again, people surfing the waves between Herald Square and Central Park. In the novel Stan Robinson dated his picture more than a century out.  By now, it’s a plausible dystopia just a decade or two away.  

Greg Lindsay is another sort of futurist: urban engineer, writer, born enthusiast. Greg tells us, the future is still populated with cities, but cities transformed.  As part of the 4C: Foreseeing the Region of the Future design competitionhe’s dreamt up his own plausibly terrifying vision of the near future in a coastal region known as “The Bight.” Lindsay outlines the hypothetical future of the region on his blog:

The near-destruction of Lower Manhattan by Hurricane Hermine in October 2022; the resulting Crash of ’23 as real estate values plunged along the East Coast; the subsequent creation of the Bureau of Coastal Management to create ironclad zoning and development guidelines; the dissolution of the Port Authority  by mutual agreement of Governors Cuomo and Bon Jovi; the election of President Mark Zuckerberg in 2024, who soon instituted universal basic income (“Zuckerbucks”) and housing (“Zuckerhuts”), while pushing a clean energy agenda that led to the merger of ExxonMonsanto.

Naomi Oreskes is a historian of science and policy skeptic. She’s known for her book Merchants of Doubt: about the corporate science that hid the truth about tobacco and global warming. But she’s also a “cli-fi” writer herself: her recent book The Collapse of Western Civilization, co-authored with Erik M. Conway, postulates another post-apocalyptic climate future:


The year is 2393, and the world is almost unrecognizable. Clear warnings of climate catastrophe went ignored for decades, leading to soaring temperatures, rising sea levels, widespread drought and—finally—the disaster now known as the Great Collapse of 2093, when the disintegration of the West Antarctica Ice Sheet led to mass migration and a complete reshuffling of the global order. Writing from the Second People’s Republic of China on the 300th anniversary of the Great Collapse, a senior scholar presents a gripping and deeply disturbing account of how the children of the Enlightenment—the political and economic elites of the so-called advanced industrial societies—failed to act, and so brought about the collapse of Western civilization. 

Outside the world of speculative fiction, we also spoke with experts about the ways the world is already adapting to the prospect of catastrophe. The Canadian journalist Chris Turner, author of Geography of Hope, introduced us this week to a Danish island in the Baltic where artists have always been drawn to the sunlight and technologists have now gone to capture it.


And the MIT architect Rafi Segal reminds us that what we’re missing is a narrative of adaptation, including the memory of radical adaptations that originally made the American landscape. Segal himself is new to Boston, but he starts with a point we often forget: that our city was defined by the leveling of hills to fill in natural bays and swamps that could easily revert to water as sea levels rise. He goes on to say that in Holland that sort of transition in the imagination from water to land and back is part of the national myth.  

Guest List
Kim Stanley Robinson
is American science fiction writer and author of the New York 2140 and the Mars trilogy
Greg Lindsay
journalist, urbanist, futurist, and senior fellow of the New Cities Foundation
Rafi Segal
associate professor of architecture and urbanism at MIT

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  • Dylan McGonigle

    Great show, but I’d like to know what Naomi Oreskes was going to say about Paul Ehrlich. Wish she hadn’t been cut off.

    • Start with what Greg Lindsay said just before Naomi Oreskes mentions Paul Ehrlich.
      The problem with the green revolution is that it didn’t turn out the way it was thought to in terms of socioeconomic dynamics i.e. class disparities due to dropping prices. Industrialized food production = lower price = more population can be fed = more stress on environment due to less biodiversity.
      (see: 2007 documentary King Corn By Ian Cheney and Curtis Ellis)

    • Jojo

      Seconded. Right when we were going to get into the meat of the important conversation.

  • Scott Gibbons

    the elephant in the room is population size, composition, social contract and location

  • Frontline’s next episode is called War on EPA – get that: war on the environment; the surroundings or conditions in which a person, animal, or plant lives or operates.

  • WoozyCanary

    Uh oh. Too much sanguine faith put in the wisdom of chasing technological unicorns.

    “A second Green Revolution could happen there [with more genetic tinkering]” (Turner)

    What, the first one wasn’t damaging enough? The Green Revolution is not sustainable. Industrial agriculture is not sustainable. Yes, it “fed” millions, but now soils are depleted, food species are controlled by a shrinking handful of nefarious corporations, and the entire system depends on cheap fossil fuels. This party is ending.

    I’m out of patience with the people bowing to the alter of technology. If only some new process, gee-gaw or something comes along, that will save us. “Renewable” energy. Nuclear 2.0 (molten salt). Gene-manipulated foods.

    Every single “new” technology, initially touted for its potential for societal salvation, has always produced a set of unanticipated, unforeseeable, and unpredictable “downsides.”

    Ford’s gas-powered cars would free the poor rural population to find opportunity in the cities. No more dead, rotting horses in the streets. No one foresaw drunk driving, urban sprawl, sold waste, air pollution…

    Ready Kilowatt told everyone nuclear power would be “too cheap to meter.” Never mind waste that’s toxic for thousands of years. Tsunamis. Terrorist threats.

    The Interwebs would democratize the masses and provide a means of expression for anyone. Never mind data theft, potential for systems hacking/terrorism, etc.

    Genetically limited fish escape from fish farms to mess with native populations. Same with the genetically screwed-with algae being touted as biofuel.

    Solar panels rely on rare, mined, elements. Lots of toxic materials in batteries. Wearing tires still give off polluting particles.

    Who know what other problems are failure lie ahead for the raft of salvational technologies currently being touted by the cheery optimists?

    The real problems—human population beyond the carrying capacity of the environment; design thinking that ignores ecological principles; settlement patterns based on essentially limitless and inexpensive concentrated carbon that took millions of years to form; political structures which serve the elite and are incapable of dealing with the scale and severity of current problems—are not being addressed often or seriously enough, if at all.

  • A in Sharon

    Each of the guests refused to declare what will happen. They spent 90% of their time predicting what will come and then, when Chris rightly asked, what’s going to happen, none were willing to say. “I don’t know” was the common response. It’s because the answer undermines their own arguments. Humanity does what Don Draper told Peggy to do, “Move Forward!” Outcomes cannot be managed because the self-appointed managers are no different than those they want to manage. Birth, then death, and in between, we strive to ignore the end we can’t avoid. “Do not pity the dead, Harry. Pity those that live, especially those that live without love.”

  • Potter

    We moved to the southern arctic to a cabin. There were no trees, few people. We went exploring through channels in the tall grasses. I looked up and saw planes flying overhead spitting red and white magnesium strontium ( not sure) welcoming fireworks. My cousin, in the next room was studying Torah and asked me to get him some medication at the drugstore. A drugstore? Where? In the distance I could see great grey skyscraper grids and cranes going up for a city. And then I woke up. Those muscle relaxant pills do little else than give me interesting dreams. That one was based on this program.

    Yes all possibilities even with growing population. Yes to the reality of the situation. But a big problem is human nature. the refusal to know, to see what is happening. I fear for our grandchildren who will live in a different world.

    One thought: It’s evident from this discussion that we do not own innovation, if we ever did. It will take a world of people, people with access, to come up with answers for climate change.