In this guest post Dr Stephanie Wakefield writes about her research on the climate crisis and urban survival skills in the Anthropocene. Stephanie has been supported by the USF with an Postdoctoral Research Fellowship award, including grant funding towards knowledge mobilisation activities.
From 2018-2021, supported by an Urban Studies Foundation Postdoctoral Research Fellowship, I carried out a research program critically analyzing experimental imaginaries and infrastructure being trialed in Miami, FL, a city often labeled “sea rise ground zero.” Along with traditional academic publications, I have aimed to operationalize this research in other, more material ways, including with a recent collaborative project, Urban Survival Skills in the Anthropocene, completed in 2022 with the generous support of an Urban Studies Foundation Knowledge Mobilization Award. Urban Survival Skills responds to a recurring thematic in my research, and in the world more broadly: the turn to “survival skills” as one means of reinventing urban life in the Anthropocene. Along with governmental attempts to keep real estate markets afloat, my research in Miami traced how collective consideration of projected climate changed urban futures—flooded streets, fresh drinking water shortages, increased inequality—is leading poor and working class urban dwellers to a shared intuition: that, to resist neoliberal-imposed social-ecological precarity, there is a need to transform urban environments –and human life— by learning old and new survival skills for the Anthropocene. For many urban dwellers, survival skills increasingly represent a way to exit current orders and build alternative urban futures, on their own terms.
These pragmatic and material considerations include how to live with water, hurricanes, or contaminated water, but also open key political/philosophical questions for what many call the age of polycrisis: how to autonomously shape one’s own life, and one’s community? How to not just remain hostage to existing socio-economic structures, seemingly capable of endless resilience, but instead actually transform urban and human life? How to inhabit the Anthropocene, as it is shaped by and reshapes cities?
Designed to operationalize this survival skills intuition and bring together different people asking these questions in their own contexts, Urban Survival Skills was created in collaboration with Miami artists/curators Gean Moreno (Director, Knight Foundation Art + Research Center, Institute of Contemporary Miami) and Natalia Zuluaga (Co-Director, NAME Publications). The project included two components: an Anthropocene Urban Survival Skills workshop in Miami (titled Practices for a Thawing World) and production of an accompanying Anthropocene Urban Survival Skills Field Guide. Throughout 2022 Moreno, Zuluaga, and I consulted with Everglades wilderness survival skills teacher Jack Shealy –a fourth-generation Gladesman who teaches eco-cultural skills (swamp navigation, fishing pole carving, invasive species handling) to adults and youth in the Everglades— to design workshop and printed matter components. To make this a multi-city conversation, we further invited Ozone504 –a Melungeon radio broadcaster and artist of Monacan, Saponi, & Lenape descent from New Orleans with whom we and some of our Everglades Miccosukee contacts are also connected— to contribute his insights and experience organizing for indigenous cultural, material, and community autonomy in an age of climate change and state failure in the Bulbancha/New Orleans region.
Held on May 14, 2022 at NAME Publications’s cultural space in South Miami, Practices for a Thawing World was a day-long survival skills training composed of two workshop sessions co-designed by Shealy, Zuluaga, Moreno, Ozone504, and myself around key “survival” skills that Shealy and Ozone504 suggest are useful for building cultural and material community autonomy in the age of climate change and state failure. Two 2.5 hour-long sessions were held partly indoors and partly outdoors, and covered skills, their applications, relevance to urban futures, and hands-on interactive exercises.
The first session, led by Jack Shealy and titled Navigating Urban Futures, asked: what tools are needed to survive, inhabit, and make use of Miami’s future climate changed environment? How to inhabit perpetually flooded cities or obtain clean drinking water if saltwater infiltrates urban aquifers? Shealy discussed Glades communities’ use of these skills past and present, his thoughts on current geopolitical, environmental, and infrastructural disruptions, and led attendees through an interactive demonstration of how to start a fire, purify and desalinate drinking water, create shelter using the South Florida’s foliage, and forage food in the city. Participants were given time and guidance to practice these via interactive exercises, and discussion was on their relevance to urban futures and the city-nature, Miami-Everglades relation in the Anthropocene.
The second session, led by Ozone504 and titled Bvlbancha Liberation Radio: Sovereignty and Mutual Aid in a Sacrifice Zone, focused on how pirate radio can be a tool for weaving other dispositions together in both post-disaster as well as ‘non-disaster’ times, and to build indigenous community autonomy in the New Orleans context, by reclaiming indigenous place names, resisting erasure, pirate radio, and Hurricane Ida mutual aid. This session focused on Bvlbancha Liberation Radio, an independent radio project developed during Hurricane Ida, which is part post-disaster networking tool and part-cultural independence infrastructure, serving in non-disaster times as an indigenous-led and centered micro-powered radio station, language laboratory, newscast, and hang-out space. In this session Ozone walked participants through the technics of pirate radio and together we installed an antenna and transmitter in Shealy’s truck, which Ozone504 used to broadcast indigenous and traditional North American music and demonstrate how the radio set up can be reproduced by anyone for their own ends. The potential utility of this particular tool for diverse peoples seeking cultural and material autonomy was clear to all, evidenced in participants’ immediate floating of their own broadcast projects such as Gladesmen Heritage Radio and Miccosukee Liberation Radio.
Beyond the obvious skills imparted, some of the most important outcomes of this project were the conversations and encounters between participants that it made possible. The Anthropocene Urban Survival Skills Field Guide we produced together reflects and results from this co-production process. Documenting this transitional moment in urban areas as diverse communities consider the challenges of, and tools for, autonomy in an era of climate change, the field guide is a printed and digital piece which includes a series of original, commissioned illustrations, images, audio, and text created by the workshop planning team and participants. To document the skills identified through our discussions and trainings, the field guide includes an audio-visual piece focused on Anthropocene futures and the overlapping skills from Shealy and Ozone504’s workshop by Miami artist and workshop participant Domingo Castillo; a photo essay on Bulbancha Liberation Radio by Ozone504; and an essay by Moreno and Wakefield critically exploring the concept of tools in the Anthropocene, and suggesting some potentials and limits to this line of thinking. While initially inspired by the design aesthetic and visual language of wilderness survival guides and artist Yona Friedman’s schematic how-to manuals, to capture the liminality of the Anthropocene, this collaboratively-designed book is intended to help identify emergent tools for engaging with rapidly changing global conditions, probe what 21st century forms of urban life and what new practical and ethical networks and ties can look like, and think how to live in the future that awaits us. It is a document and archive of the now –from specific perspectives, in specific cities– through the tools shining forth from within it and the conversations they are producing.
To conclude, a few thoughts on emergent knowledge and practice. The words “survival skills” often evoke visions of returning to “lost” skills from unchanging environments. Too often, both Anthropocene theorists and survival skills instructors employ discourses of returning to imagined traditional or “lost” skills that assume an unchanging environment. But in the Anthropocene, the skills themselves need to be—and already are being—reinvented. Rather than pristine wilderness, much contemporary survival skill reinvention is happening in urbanized spaces. To better understand, contribute to, and help share this emergent pragmatic know-how, urban practitioners need new forms of material knowledge production and dissemination appropriate to the Anthropocene’s altered, degraded, invaded, and flooded environments. This project was conceived as a means of better understanding, contributing to, and helping to share this emergent pragmatic urban know-how. It was designed as an open-ended, collaborative experimental process, and the skills eventually identified as critical to urban futures –such as pirate radio— were not the ones we had initially anticipated. They are, however, emanating from the real, material realities of ordinary people, and not simply climate change projection charts. This, we think, is crucial. We hope that this process itself can be a valuable prototype of knowledge production for identifying emergent forms of urban know-how, materializing from within transforming environments. Similarly, focused on the skills identified through this collaborative process, the field guide is a prototype for archiving and disseminating new material knowledge being generated in situ in particular cities designated as climate change “hot spots.” Such practices and the futures they are attempting to create often diverge from expert projections of coastal cities as “doomed,” and are an important refutation to dominant ideas that human agency in the Anthropocene should be limited to accepting vulnerability and crisis as the horizon of life.