By Natalie Marshall
There have been many debates about how to mark the beginning of the Anthropocene—an age in which humans have impacted the Earth to the extent that natural processes have. However, few dispute the evidence that humans have impacted the Earth in a major way. Since behaviorally modern humans have been creating and using tools, starting fires, and farming, they have been altering the natural environment around them. Rivers have been dammed, mountains have been leveled, and bodies of water have been leveed in order to make room for an ever-growing population. The construction of levees is a great example of the lengths humans will go to in order to control nature for their own convenience. Levees are placed around cities such as New Orleans, allowing humans to live in places that are naturally inclined to flood. Ironically, human activity has influenced the climate to a point where natural disasters such as hurricanes are becoming more prevalent and severe. However, the impacts of climate change and the necessity for levees are not felt equally by everyone—marginalized groups that cannot afford to move out of dangerous flood zones are harmed to a greater extent by the effects of climate change that are largely the result of capitalism and industrialization. This essay will discuss Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans to show the causes and negative effects of levee failure, and how the levee failures of Hurricane Katrina represent the unequal distribution between socioeconomic classes of the Anthropocene’s negative effects.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) defines levees as “man-made structures designed and constructed in accordance with sound engineering practices to contain, control, or divert the flow of water in order to reduce the risk from temporary flooding.” FEMA is the organization accountable for responding to natural disasters—an activity for which the government is held responsible. Levees have a long history of being intermingled with government regulation. The Flood Control Act of 1928 authorized the Army Corps of Engineers to design and construct flood control structures on the Mississippi River, and rely on local maintenance after the levees were built. This act stated that the government held no liability regarding flood control structures. The Flood Control Act of 1936 extended the act of 1928, and contained language that implied the government held responsibility for protecting people and property. FCA 1936 shifted the burden of flood protection onto the federal government and declared flood control a national priority.
Levees protect many cities in the United States, including the city of New Orleans, Louisiana. The city is surrounded by the Mississippi River, Lake Pontchartrain, and Lake Borgne and much of the city sits below sea level, making it extremely susceptible to flooding. Adding to the already present flood risks are the effects of global climate change. Human activities have instigated the release of greenhouse gasses, which in turn have increased temperatures, causing extreme weather events such as heat waves and heavy precipitation to occur more frequently. The continuing increase of extreme weather events puts strain on the infrastructure that protects cities from natural disasters, infrastructure that was poorly designed in the first place, contributing to catastrophes such as the levee failures of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. These weather events are a defining characteristic of the Anthropocene, and the effects are not felt equally between socioeconomic classes.
On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina reached Louisiana. Over 50 levees and floodwalls protecting the greater New Orleans area failed, leaving approximately 80% of the city flooded. 1,577 people lost their lives in the state of Louisiana. John Biguenet, a native New Orleanian and writer, chronicled his experiences in the New York Times. After being forced to evacuate, he and his wife later returned to a flooded home in New Orleans, where none of their belongings were salvageable. Biguenet recounts how nearly everyone he talked to was of the same opinion—New Orleans would not have experienced such devastation if the levees had not collapsed. The disaster caused by the levee collapse “was not an act of God but of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,” Biguenet says. Investigations done by civil engineers all agree with this assessment. The soil beneath the levees was extremely weak, and practically destined to fail given the design of the levees. The American Society of Civil Engineers called the flooding of New Orleans “the worst engineering catastrophe in US History.” The USACE had planned to reconstruct the levees, but poor oversight and budget cuts kept the project from being completed in a timely manner.
The destruction caused by the levee failures was not equally dispersed throughout the city. The French Quarter, the Garden District, the university section, the business district, and the West Bank—wealthy parts of the city—saw lesser amounts of damage and were repaired relatively quickly. However, poor neighborhoods including the Lower Ninth Ward and Center City are still in disrepair to this day. These neighborhoods are located closest to the levees and have the highest risk of flooding. This disparity between rich and poor exemplifies several major theories regarding the Anthropocene. In his book The Anthropocene and the Global Environmental Crisis, Christophe Bonneuil discusses four narratives to thinking about the Anthropocene: the naturalist narrative, post-nature narrative, eco-catastrophist narrative, and the eco-Marxist narrative. The eco-Marxist narrative proposes that the Anthropocene is a result of Capitalism, and the drive to earn capital exhausts natural resources and exploits lower classes. Eco-Marxists consider the economically exploited to be the environmentally exploited as well. Certainly the New Orleanians most affected by Hurricane Katrina were the marginalized residents—those who could not afford to live outside of dangerous flood zones near the levees and those who did not have the resources to leave New Orleans nor repair the damages done by Hurricane Katrina.
Thinking of damages done by the levee failures and the Anthropocene overall in terms of marginalized groups being highly impacted is a direct contrast to species thinking—a way of looking at the Anthropocene that places responsibility on all humans (since approximately 50,000 years ago when behaviorally modern humans evolved) for the changes done to the environment. In “The Anthropocene and Its Victims” in The Anthropocene and the Global Environmental Crisis, Francois Gemenne suggests that “if humans have indeed become the principle agents of change on this planet, overwhelming natural forces of change, most humans are actually the victims of these changes rather than their agents.” This is highlighted by the response to Hurricane Katrina: the levee failures and damage to the city were mainly felt by the lower-class residents. Gemenne then goes on to discuss how environmental changes have been the main factor of migration and displacement on the planet, from both natural disasters and slow changes. The levee failures and subsequent flooding displaced more than 400,000 people during Hurricane Katrina, and over 100,000 residents did not return. These 100,000 residents were disproportionately low-income Blacks. The displaced residents from Hurricane Katrina are examples of how the Anthropocene disproportionately affects low-income citizens.
All humans are living in the Anthropocene, but not all humans are being affected in the same way. Low-income residents continue to bear the burden of environmental problems such as pollution, contamination, and flooding as they did during the levee failures during Hurricane Katrina. As the Anthropocene progresses, disasters such as hurricanes will become even more prevalent, further exacerbating the problems that have already wreaked havoc on infrastructure, homes, and lives. The levee failures of Hurricane Katrina exemplify how the effects of the Anthropocene are unevenly distributed, and unless steps can be taken to alleviate the burden and lessen the causes of the Anthropocene, marginalized groups will continue to suffer.
Biguenet, John. “What Have We Learned?” The New York Times. October 30, 2005.
Biguenet, John. “The New New Orleans.” The New York Times. October 26, 2005.
Federal Emergency Management Agency. “History of Levees.” October 2012. http://www.fema.gov/plan/rm-main
Hamilton, C., Bonneuil, C., and Gemenne, F. The Anthropocene and the Global Environmental Crisis (New York: Routledge, 2015). 17-31, 44-56, 168-174.
The AAAS Climate Science Panel. “What We Know: The Reality, Risks, and Response to Climate Change.” American Association for the Advancement of Science. http://whatweknow.aaas.org/get-the-facts/