Book review: Governing Disaster in Urban Environments: Climate Change Preparation and Adaption after Hurricane Sandy

by Julia Nevarez and reviewed by Jonathan Davies

5 Feb 2020, 11:07 a.m.
Jonathan Davies

Governing Disaster in Urban Environments book cover

‚ÄčBook Review: Governing Disaster in Urban Environments: Climate Change Preparation and Adaption after Hurricane Sandy

by Julia Nevarez and reviewed by Jonathan Davies

New York: Lexington Books, 2018; 164 pp.: ISBN: 9781498543750, £60 (hbk)


In this timely and important volume, Julia Nevarez adeptly explores the cultural political economy of Hurricane Sandy and the increasingly destructive interface between humans and nature in urban spaces. At a time when the climate emergency is growing and becoming increasingly politicised, but climate-change deniers and perpetrators occupy some of the most important political offices on the planet, Nevarez has produced a rich inter-scalar account of the calamitous intersection between increasingly intense weather events, policy failure and community action. While Mike Davis (2018) is right to argue that human climate change risks the effective ‘triage’ of humanity, with the most devastating effects on those already dispossessed, this book reinforces the fact that ordinary citizens of even the world’s wealthiest cities cannot escape. Public resources are scarce, and public governance expertise is depleted. Austere neoliberalism contributes to the impoverished character of disaster governance and the manifold spatial and territorial inequalities it aggravates.


At the same time, the local community response in New York City, mobilised around the resonant slogan ‘Occupy Sandy!’, showcases the potential for new solidarities capable of changing the conversation, the rules and ultimately the urban condition. As national and international climate governance fails, community-based disaster relief networks flourish. As threats intensify and neoliberalised public governance capabilities diminish, Nevarez argues that these networks will become increasingly important disaster response mechanisms across the globe. The book deftly interweaves these large- and small-scale questions together with theoretically informed and empirically concrete discussions of how community is afflicted by, resilient to and responds to human climate disasters at multiple scales.


Governing Disaster interweaves many resonant concepts, including neoliberalism, globalism, the Anthropocene, the Capitalocene, resilience, community and solidarity. One of the most interesting issues, in Chapter 2, concerns the possibility that the entrepreneurial impulse of neoliberalism might subvert itself, giving rise to a spontaneous, bottom-up and self-governing form of urban commons. Echoing Beck’s (1992) distinction between individualisation as ‘fate’ and individuation as ‘self-realisation’, Nevarez asks whether radical democracy might emerge from new forms of ‘individualized collective-action’. Can neoliberalism, in this sense, produce its own grave-digger? This is a significant question, particularly in the age of austerity when the resources of activists are heavily invested in securing the means of subsistence – assistance as well as resistance. To the question ‘Isn’t this just what the neoliberals want us to do?’, Nevarez implies that one possible answer is ‘Does that matter if it works?’ However, this is a big ‘if’. Governing Disaster ends on quite a downbeat note. The damage done by Sandy continues to scar landscapes and lives. The costs are still downloaded to the worst-affected localities. Governance appears to be confined to mitigation, preparation and adaptation, rather than the militant politics of ‘stop’ and ‘reverse’ demanded by Extinction Rebellion. Given the political inspiration behind ‘Occupy Sandy’, the reader wants to know more about how practices of dispossession, survival, resilience, solidarity and contention intersect in Sandy-afflicted communities – and particularly the extent to which they can indeed overflow neoliberal governmentalities into national and globalised waves of climate change action.


The book identifies a second issue meriting more attention in debates about climate change governance, that of conflictual and distributional geo-politics. Bruno Latour (2017) talks about the rise of the far-right in terms of a new era of ‘climate conflicts’, generating violent displacement and enforced mobilities. At the same time, we are in an era of escalating conflict over growth and development, including the hyper exploitation of natural resources through urbanisation. This issue highlights a fundamental question for those who see local solidarity networks having the potential to internationalise, perhaps through movements like Fearless Cities (Barcelona en Comú, 2019). What ‘price’ do citizens of the global north, including the victims of Sandy in New York City, have to pay to facilitate sustainable urban development amongst low-GDP citizens of the world? Is this a zero-sum game or can it be a positive one mediated by new technologies? And, perhaps most importantly, can the localised politics of Occupy Sandy grapple with planetary issues as the original Occupy! movement tried to do?


A third interesting question in Governing Disaster is the way it addresses the debate about critical vocabularies. Should we talk about the ‘Anthropocene’, the ‘Capitalocene’ or both (Moore, 2016)? Nevarez argues that the Anthropocene is indeed capitalogenic, but that to name the era the ‘Capitalocene’ would obscure the questioning of fundamental relationships between human and non-human, to which Anthropocene is a more fundamental provocation. But this may not do justice to the rich vein of Marxist ecology studies, or the Marxist concept of Alienation, which is fundamentally addressed to the schism not only between humans in class society but also between human and non-human through estrangement from nature, the means of production and the product of those means. The Capitalocene arguably makes tougher political demands, and takes in a wider analytical horizon, relating climate change with other structurally inscribed contradictions and pathologies, including secular stagnation, uneven development and geo-political conflict.


Anthropocenic analysis, finally, also tends to imply giving up on the struggle for ‘mastery’ over nature (e.g. Schulz, 2017). Yet, to live in symbiosis with the planet in the 21st century requires deep scientific knowledge and expertise. Much as a doctor must endlessly pursue mastery of medicine, so too an ecologist must seek to master nature in the sense of gaining a profound understanding of how to live sustainably in a technological age. If we have ambitions not only to moderate but also to reverse climate change, for example through seeding the oceans, this surely does imply a form of mastery: not mindless domination for accumulation, but a resolute commitment to science as a public good, through which knowledge endows us with alt-power to counter the disasters we have unleashed.


Governing Disaster will be a rich and fertile source of debate around these and many other questions. Its effortless interdisciplinarity is impressive, and will be vital if we are to find solidarity-based solutions to the increasingly urgent problems, and immanent disasters, of the 21st century. The book will reward environmentalists and life-scientists, urbanists, geographers and public policy and administration specialists. It is strongly recommended to academics, and also to students, progressive policy makers and environmental activists.




Barcelona en Comú (2019) Fearless Cities: A Guide to the Global Municipalist Movement. Oxford: New Internationalist.
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Beck, U (1992) Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. London: Sage.
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Davis, M (2018) New Gods, Old Enigmas: Marx’s Lost Theory. London: Verso.
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Latour, B (2017) Facing Gaia. Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime. Trans. Porter, Catherine . Cambridge: Polity Press.
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Moore, JW (ed.) (2016) Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism. Oakland, CA: PM Press.
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Schulz, KA (2017) Decolonising the anthropocene: The mytho-politics of human mastery. In: Woons, M, Weier, S (eds) Critical Epistemologies of Global Politics. E-International Relations Publishing.
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