A Climate in Crisis: Conversation with Jeff VanderMeer about Florida's resilience
By Annamarie Simoldoni
With its miles of stark white beaches and enchanting rural swamplands, Florida is a home, a biodiverse wonderland, a playground for travelers, a retreat for the retired. Often – in the minds of many developers – a nuisance to be built over for profit.
Acclaimed author Jeff VanderMeer met with the Florida Student News Watch in early September to discuss a nonfiction article he wrote, “The Annihilation of Florida: An Overlooked National Tragedy” published in May by Current Affairs magazine.
“The article was the end result of searching for a way to be useful,” VanderMeer said – a stand against what feels like a magnitude of human folly.
At the heart of a seemingly rabid development of Florida coastlines lies a dysfunctional relationship between people and nature. Developers and business-minded policymakers capitalize on the misconception that our environment in Florida is an expendable luxury, rather than an integral part of our survival.
“If Republican imagination of the past is any indication, money for these protection projects will be diverted to unrelated pet projects or even given to the very developers who have contributed to the problem,” VanderMeer said.
Proposed toll roads plow through rural Florida bringing with them the promise of hasty and greedy development that pays no mind to the actual needs of existing rural communities.
He focuses on toll roads as the quintessential example of irresponsible development, referring to the project as “the purest distillation of capitalist evil.”
These projects feel nefarious to many but may more accurately be described as a lack of environmental foresight.
VanderMeer points to a philosophical ideological shift – lazily infused into our relationship to the natural world – as a major reason why Florida ecosystems are so tempting to overly-zealous and careless developers.
What’s happening to Florida ecosystems does not exist in a vacuum.
Developers are often out-of-state organizations that are “bringing the same kind of blueprint to every state,” VanderMeer said. Uniformity as a way to market a state that flourishes with biodiversity.
By viewing nature as an obstacle and failing to take into account environmental nuance, developers are emboldened to impose ineffective, costly solutions that ultimately cause more harm to communities.
The Dominos of Development
VanderMeer is not uniformly anti-development.
Instead, urbanization is possible “in ways that are slightly more delicate, but still profitable,” he said.
Too often, Florida’s natural ecosystems are dredged, drained and destroyed simply to put a condo on a beach or neighborhood in an area that should be swampland.
“And yet, we often choose to just go with this one-size-fits-all solution that doesn't fit every landscape,” VanderMeer said.
Natural ecosystems have evolved to handle natural disasters without human intervention.
“The more we strip away, the more we’re going to have to build up and spend billions of dollars fixing,” he said.
Less than a month after this conversation took place, Hurricane Ian’s devastating trek across southwest Florida left an estimated $40 billion worth of infrastructural damage.
When ignoring the inherent relationship between environment and humanity, developers create a false reality of continuous growth. VanderMeer’s reporting brings nature to the forefront of the conversation.
Humanity cannot build on sand alone.
Much more can be said on development affecting Florida’s ecosystems. Here are some further topics for journalists to investigate.
Greenwashing: An environmental marketing tactic
Greenwashing is too often leveraged against communities, portraying what will be irresponsible development as a sustainable endeavor.
Where is this happening near you? What does it look like to your community?
Tourism in Florida is a billion dollar industry, but some tourist destinations are more environmentally conscious than others.
What sites exist in your coverage area? How are they protected? Is how it’s marketed hold up under examination?
The effect of proposed toll roads on African-American communities
Road projects impact African-American communities in a disproportionate and underreported way.
What new road projects are planned for your coverage area? What about the quality of existing roads? How are sustainability and access integrated into the plan?
What to consider before moving to the Sunshine State
It’s estimated that 1,000 people move to Florida every day.
What does this mean for our environment? Where are they most located? How are smaller towns planning for future urbanization and how will this affect their ecosystems?
The myth of low-income housing
Developers advertise expansion by describing projects as low-income housing options, however these projects tend to somehow transform into luxury options once they are ready to be listed.
Do these projects appear in your coverage area? How do low-income housing areas interact with the environment around them? How does this differ from affluent areas of your town/city?