In Miami everyone is doomed. Confirmation came today in the form of a long, widely shared article in New York Magazine entitled “The Uninhabitable Earth,” in which Miami gets star billing once again as the city with no future: “Most people talk as if Miami and Bangladesh still have a chance of surviving; most of the scientists I spoke with assume we’ll lose them within the century, even if we stop burning fossil fuel in the next decade.” This is by now a familiar trope: South Florida as ground zero—or, rather, floodwater zero—for climate change catastrophe. We’ll be abandoning the city in fifty years, but developers are building condo towers on the water now like they’ll be here forever. It’s an irresistible story. It also just happens to repeat a set of tired tropes about Miami, which has been a simultaneous US national exception and a US national aspiration at least since Time magazine’s 1981 cover story “Trouble in Paradise” (“An epidemic of violent crime, a plague of illicit drugs and a tidal wave of refugees have slammed into South Florida with the destructive power of a hurricane. Those three forces, and a number of lesser ills, threaten to turn one of the nation’s most prosperous, congenial and naturally gorgeous regions into a paradise lost.”)
To be honest I couldn’t read the story all the way to the end even though I’m obsessed and fascinated by climate change scenarios and climate change stories. I had to work, and then I had to unwind from work, which for me is an hour in my Miami garden. (I’ve lived in the US since 1990: it’s called a yard here, I know, but what you do in it is still “gardening”—funny, that.) Sure, we’re living in a sinking city and we haven’t even built a proper mass transit system but we’re spending hundreds of millions of dollars on useless “upgrades” to highway interchanges, but I’m in a difficult love-hate relationship with my Surinam cherry hedge. It shouldn’t be here, it’s a class 2 invasive species, but yards and yards of it were here when we bought the house 5 years ago and it would be a bear to uproot it all and it requires no watering ever, and you know what, it’s a decent-looking hedge. I’ve been planting native species elsewhere in the yard, trying to bring back the plants and butterflies and birds that this very house and its neighborhood and the city that’s grown up here with its millions of people and miles of asphalt have pushed to the brink of extinction—and that’s before climate change and sea-level rise. It’s 85º and 80% humidity and I sweat a lot but I have this thing where I have to prune the hedge by hand with clippers, no electric hedge trimmer, so it’s neat but not too neat, and I marvel at the futility of it and this use of my time, and yet it’s strangely soothing. It takes days to trim the hedge, and the pruning will never be done, it’s growing again before my eyes. I could just start over at the beginning — it’s like keeping the sea waters at bay, they keep coming back. We’re on high ground here — 12 whole feet above sea level. I could trim this hedge for years and years while the waters rise. Is it perhaps the futility of it that is actually what’s soothing?