Unthinking our way into 'progressive collapse'

For much of yesterday, the self-destruction of the Champlain Tower condo in Surfside, Florida, was summarized in headlines and tweets as a “partial building collapse.” I’m not going to force anyone to watch the video of it who doesn’t want to, but suffice it to say that wording does not capture what happened by half.

The most immediate visual comparison in recent American life is the collapse of the World Trade Center on 9/11. For me personally, it brings back stronger memories of the 2010 Haiti earthquake or the deadly 2008 Pétionville school collapse that preceded it. (If after all that you still want to watch it, you can access the video here.)

It’s too soon to say what caused the tower to fall. It will almost certainly end up being a mix of factors—both underlying and acute, systemic and particular—as disasters always are. But it didn’t escape experts’ notice that the beachfront condominium, perched on the same human-expanded sandbar as Miami Beach, is in an area that is being ever-more threatened by rising sea levels and so-called “king tides” that flood the area, all of which may have exacerbated the sinking of the tower that had been documented as early as the mid-1990s.

If so, then the tower collapse may have in some ways been related to other scattered other stories across the nation and globe that same day: a record-setting Pacific Northwest heatwave expected to raise the mercury up to 113 degrees in Portland, Oregon; record-setting 100-degree temperatures in Siberia; record-shattering drought and wildfires across the western United States; and an active early hurricane season in the Atlantic, including the first predicted landfall by a tropical storm in the United States this year.

What concerns me is that as a society we are still, in 2021, treating what increasingly seems to be one big global story of climate catastrophe as a series of more easily digestible one-offs. It brings to mind the late Haitian-American scholar Michel-Rolph Trouillot, who wrote of the active delusions of the French slavers of colonial Saint-Domingue, and their inability to see or plan for the enslaved revolt that became the Haitian Revolution. As he wrote:

“When reality does not coincide with deeply held beliefs, human beings tend to phrase interpretations that force reality within the scope of these beliefs. They devise formulas to repress the unthinkable and to bring it back within the realm of accepted discourse.”

This “unthinkablity” pervades conversations about so many things in our moment—including the weakening of U.S. electoral democracy and reemergence of American fascism, the fraying of the 76-year-old postwar model of geopolitics that prevented another active World War. Americans’ deeply held beliefs that we live in an impermeable fortress of democracy has allowed the attempted putsch against the U.S. government on January 6 to fade into the realm of jokes and fringe conspiracy theories, even as some of the same actors openly plot another. The self-assurance of the mayor of Surfside—who said, disbelievingly, that “buildings like this do not fall in America,” just after one most certainly did—should give every surviving resident of the sandbar pause.

As the survivor of a previously unthinkable catastrophe, I know how important our instinct for denial is. At some point, you have to put many of the threats that hover over the margins of our lives out of your mind in order to perform basic functions. The trouble comes when you put those realities so far out of your mind that you can’t even make contingency plans, much less address the underlying inequities that acutely threaten society today. That’s how we end up with bipartisan groups of lawmakers agreeing not to deal with the biggest long-term threat to infrastructure in what was supposed to be a landmark infrastructure bill.

The good news is that we can still decide to act. There are still many proposals out there to address the rapid progress of climate change and take active measures to mitigate its effects.

If we don’t act soon decisively and soon though, the collapse of the Surfside tower, whatever its ultimate cause, could end up being an unfortunate metaphor for our time. It seems to have stood, sinking imperceptibly for decades, until some as-yet-unknown acute force triggered what experts call a “progressive collapse”—in which, as engineering professor Matthys Levy explained to USA Today, one part fails, then another, until “there’s nothing there to stop it, there’s no strong elements to hold it back. It’s a cascade.”

Jonathan Myerson Katz is the author of the upcoming Gangsters of Capitalism: Smedley Butler, The Marines, and the Making and Breaking of America’s Empire, coming in January 2022 from St. Martin’s Press. On Twitter @KatzOnEarth.