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Rising sea levels and the case for retreat


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In the latest issue of Public Culture, Liz Koslov argues that in the face of rising sea levels caused by climate change, an organized withdraw from coastal areas is an option that should be seriously considered. Read an excerpt from her piece below. Here’s a snippet of her abstract: “I argue that the word retreat is a valuable and necessary addition to the language of climate change adaptation, serving to distinguish community-organized relocation from forced relocation and climate-induced displacement. Understanding community-organized relocation efforts as forms of retreat unifies this emerging practice with other social movements and political projects that seek more sustainable ways of settling on earth.”

What do we gain by calling this a struggle for retreat? Leaving home in the context of climate change is not a neutral act. Relabeling retreat to make it sound more neutral is, I argue, counterproductive. Euphemisms may abound, but each carries baggage of its own. Adding “planned” or “managed” to retreat makes it sound like a rebranded version of policies such as managed decline and planned shrinkage that withdrew public resources from places deemed “at risk,” to deleterious and discriminatory effect. “Planned relocation” and “resettlement” insert retreat squarely into a history of forced population movements that have likewise been devastating for the people and communities involved. This history undeniably sets the scene for retreat—many of those living in the most vulnerable places do so as the direct or indirect result of forced relocation, sedentarization, or displacement—but this is a history from which retreat should depart. Examples of successful community-organized relocation provide retreat a different history and suggest ways it can have a more just, sustainable future.

Discussions of retreat are stymied in part because they do not distinguish government-supported, but community-organized, collective movement from government-dictated mass relocation or disaster-and climate-induced displacement. Forced relocation and displacement are already resulting from—and in the name of—climate change, not least from government-sponsored adaptation and mitigation schemes. Use of the term retreat maintains space for another kind of movement in the context of climate change, one that aligns less with top-down interventions that displace people and abandon places in the name of progress than with a whole range of grassroots efforts to democratize and transform space and place—from right-to-the-city movements, to those for the right to relocate from places contaminated by industrial pollutants, to stay put in the face of rising rents and gentrification, or to return home after disaster.

To bring together collective movements in the context of climate change under the term retreat suggests that the time has come to retreat not only from particular places but also from particular ways of life that are likewise proving unsustainable. The complexity and ambivalence of retreat serves as a reminder that there are no easy solutions and that it is not possible to rebuild forever or to wall ourselves off from the problems we face. Retreat is a powerful and evocative word, one that signals a change in direction—something we share the need for as a society even though we do not all live in places that are immediately vulnerable.

Image: Flooding in New York caused by Hurricane Sandy, 2012.