PRINT December 2017


Hurricane Irma over Anguilla and Barbuda, September 6, 2017. Photo: NASA.

WEATHER IS DARK MAGIC. But human constructs are real. Weather threatens the stability of things like buildings and infrastructure. These solids are not supposed to fly around, burn up, or float away. The air, water, and atmospheres in which they are suspended should even seem to be invisible, so that the objects can be more palpable as property. Banks may surround the same objects with obscure mathematical calculations that render them worth less than nothing, but in the end, what could be more reliable than the rational, sensible endeavors of global finance?

More dangerous and imponderable are the mysterious and unpredictable forces of weather. Weather is also haunted by the politics of the global-warming hoax—a hoax that, even if it turned out to be real, would only burn or inundate the radical leftists in coastal blue states and island territories. It is better to bank on a red state like Texas. When Harvey hit Texas, Texas hit back. The human love of fighting and being right is a defiant backstop against the evil of weather. Texans will build back bigger and better than ever. They will never back down. They will create jobs in construction. And they will never retreat from territories that have been conquered with the courage of real estate and the trusted principles of insurance. With the same fiscal foresight, Puerto Rico will work with a congressional budget that only allows for the repair of existing transmission lines rather than the development of an expensive renewable-energy grid. It is important to look ahead. And with the same appetite for a binary fight, the US will begin staking out oil resources in the melting waters of the Arctic. Across the world, media outposts, together with social media, also provide some defense against the weather, packaging daily predictions and dramatizing storms with stock epic plot lines that are exciting and entertaining.

But before the word media became associated with these communication technologies, it referred to the elements: to the surrounding atmospheres of air, water, earth, and fire. And if focus were given to the medium—to the field instead of the object, the ground instead of the figure—our sense of the world would be inverted. Rather than humans, those familiar bounded entities that like to fight, be righteous, and own things, organisms would develop capacities related to the medium. Seen with the naked eye, the movement of clouds in the atmosphere would be a wet information system more common than a digital cloud. Data-transmitting digital devices would satisfy a Fitbit appetite for remote-sensing the state of the planet in the images and sounds of ice floes or selected habitats. The air, earth, and water that are tight up against all the urban solids would present more palpable potentials, and more tangible risks and rewards, than the mathematical weather of financial quants. Rather than merely repairing infrastructure systems that topple even in a tropical storm, islands would relish wind and photons. A network of reinforced wind turbines in the sea could generate energy while actually dissipating all but the most severe hurricane winds. Solar power would start to come back online as soon as storm clouds pass. The banking and real-estate structures that currently leave stranded houses physically and financially underwater would respond to changing geological boundaries as a matter of prudence and practicality. Reverse-engineering the global mortgage that produced invasive development would allow for retreat from eroding floodplains and forest edges. More stable economies could then generate employment and profit from both the construction and destruction of buildings. Attuned to ebbs and flows of development and environment, this more kinetic and cosmopolitan urbanity would be most successful when in a constant state of imbalance. Human constructs are a form of economic occult. Weather is real.

Keller Easterling is a professor at the Yale School of Architecture.