A few weeks ago, my neighbor asked me why I rent, rather than own a home. After all, I’ve been in Miami for six years, and my two kids attend public schools in a neighborhood I love.
I told her that every time we have a heavy rain and the street in front of our house fills with water, I wonder whether property here is a sound investment.
She nodded, but seemed unconvinced.
Really, my concerns go deeper than dollars and cents. I wonder whether Miami will rise to the challenge of creating a resilient and sustainable future, and whether all of its residents will have a fair chance to shape that future. I wonder whether we will act in time.
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We know a lot about how scientists and public officials perceive the affects of rising sea levels and other environmental threats. But those of us who live here, but are not technical experts or politicians — the millions of us who have the most to gain from positive changes and the most to lose from inaction — are often not a part of the conversation. Now is the time for that to change.
On April 8, community members, activists and university faculty members will partake in Fragile Habitat: Conversations for Miami’s Future, the first of a series of events focused on Miami’s environment ( bit.ly/fragilehabitat). The series, funded by a grant to FIU from the National Endowment for the Humanities, aims to add questions about values, imagination and culture to our deliberations about the future. For those of us who can’t design water pumps or predict the rate of sea rise, the forum will provide an opportunity to learn and think about the past, present and future of Miami’s natural world.
Whether we are outdoor enthusiasts or people who prefer to stay inside, our lives are intertwined with the natural world. We can be enriched, or imperiled, by contact with it. In fact, dependence on the natural world is a universal human experience and for that reason is a theme considered in literature, religion, philosophy and the arts. Some of our most enduring questions — those for which there are no right answers — come from engaging our cultural heritage.
Is our highest value the profit margin? How do we value fairness, beauty and community? How can we make room at the table for many voices as we work to solve our collective problems?
▪ How do we engage with nature every day? Our lives are shaped by natural and ecological processes even in the middle of asphalt and concrete. When you plant a tree or pave a driveway, you are altering the water cycle, the insect and bird habitat, the microclimate and the plant life in your yard. You are also participating in a planet-scale carbon cycle.
▪ What stories can we tell about how we are connected to this land and to each other? When you eat a mango from a neighborhood tree, when you let the cerasee grow wild in your yard, when you enjoy the blooming flame trees, you make a connection with the land, the climate and with generations of people have made their homes in the Caribbean.
▪ Do we trust technology and design to protect us from an uncertain future? Ours is a region that has long been shaped by vulnerability to nature. We have long lived in dynamic tension with the climate, wildlife and water around us. Nature is powerful. But so is human creativity.
Humans have tested the limits of our ingenuity by dramatically altering our landscapes — draining wetlands, building cities, remaking native prairies to grow food crops. Sometimes we have found those experiments enrich our lives. Other times, we find ourselves even more vulnerable.
As a professional historian and a college teacher, I am hopeful that we can forge a resilient future, and that we can do it on time. Resilience means not only that we will recover from disasters, but that we rebound stronger. Resilience means that we recognize opportunity in hardship.
Those of us who study the many facets of human experience recognize that there is rarely a straightforward path without contradictions and uncertainty. We know that people see the world differently, and that those with the most power get to remake the future according to their own vision. And we know that amazing things happen when people gather to share ideas and stories.
A resilient future can only happen if we come together to prioritize what we value most. We need to talk about these values face to face, in conversation with each other. Come begin this dialog at Fragile Habitat. Let us begin to imagine a resilient Miami.
April Merleaux is an assistant professor in Florida International University’s Department of History.