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Food & Nature in Cities

Heat Wave by Eric Klinenberg

In Heat Wave, Klinenberg argues that a range of forces, including increasing isolation, privatization and cost efficiency mindsets in government services, and stark economic inequality have injured our social fabric, which becomes most visible through disasters exacerbated by climate collapse. The deployment of recent trends to explain modern failures leaves the impression disaster response is now worse than in the past. There are aspects of disaster response that seem better in the past, namely in a more collectivist mindset; I recall my dad telling the story of his family carrying elderly neighbors into their house to survive a brutal ice storm upstate together in the sixties, and community interventions like that feel few & far between these days. However, there are more forces at play than Klinenberg lets on, and his analysis allows readers to falsely believe turning back the clock on disaster response would solve our problems.

As an individual who doesn't identify with academia, reading books like this becomes a frustrating exercise. In my mind, thinking about a problem for multiple hours, as engaging with this book takes, I should come to serious conclusions about the absolute current state of an issue and what we should do about it. Academia, meanwhile, prizes doing the right kinds of research thoroughly and presenting it accurately over having strong analysis. Klinenberg demonstrates an enormous research effort in this book. Reading his book does provide a history of the heat wave and trends contributing to the response, but readers leave with conclusions never spelled out that don't hold up to scrutiny about how to solve these problems.

While I agree with the framing of most of the social ills Klinenberg identifies, it's never clear how far back turning the clock to he believes would resolve them now. Disaster response in past decades was as, if not more, plagued by racism and homophobia and every other social ill. Our ability to get news out to Americans, while complicated by the media's polarization of news including emergencies, is unparalleled with AMBER alerts and government accounts on social media. (It's a cultural failure our earthquake response messages in NYC were 30-50 minutes delayed; I'm curious why.) Klinenberg points to the consolidation of ownership of media companies as an issue, and while in analyzing the nineties that is relevant, I now spend far more time looking at social media than traditional publications, which is far less centralized. Social media has unquestionably made Americans more aware in the biases built into our emergency services, notably in police relations. Meanwhile, though most Americans don't know it, weather forecasts have improved: our four-day forecasts are now as accurate as one-day forecasts were thirty years ago, and an article in the National Bureau of Economic Research links this to thousands of heat wave deaths avoided.

Why does he ignore all these trends? Turning back the clock to police chiefs with walkie-talkies in the seventies with no accountability doesn't sound like progress to me. And I doubt Klinenberg thinks that's the solution either. But to spend years writing an entire book about emergency response and not describe any solutions, or point to all the ways responses are improving, is wildly unhelpful.

Then, there's climate change. While the preface to the second edition contextualizes this crisis in the larger, global climate crisis, it reads more as an ad for the book's continued relevance. Natural crises are changing at an increasing pace of change, and traditional societal understandings of disaster are not keeping pace for storms and consequences. The body of the book doesn't articulate that.

I'm not trying to rant about Klinenberg here, and his book is accessible, thorougly-researched, and digs into the more obvious negative trends. To give him credit, the growing economic inequality, isolation, and privatization he discusses have continued. But he sounds to be describing the present by describing an event in the nineties, while largely ignoring the climate crisis and the internet and advancements in digital data, three of the most defining trends of this century, paints an incomplete picture.