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Rethinking the "Occupy" Movement in the Wake of Hurricane Sandy

11/14/2012 06:06 pm ET | Updated Jan 14, 2013

Though certainly devastating in an environmental, economic and even psychological sense, Hurricane Sandy may lead to significant long-term political change. Already, activists affiliated with Occupy Wall Street have fanned out across New York to provide disaster relief to the neediest. For "Occupy," the storm provides an opportunity to broaden a movement which in recent months had seemed to be on the verge of disintegration. As the movement matures, there has been some talk of rebranding as evidenced by this "Occupy Sandy" web page.

For Occupy, the storm represents a kind of coming of age and in the long-term relief efforts might serve to re-energize the movement along environmental lines. Such a change comes none too soon. Whatever its initial strengths, Occupy later suffered when it failed to provide a coherent and long-term vision for society. In hindsight, it is easy to see how the group's anti-establishment rhetoric and outlook only propelled the movement so far.

It's unfortunate that it took a devastating hurricane to alert the public to the dangers of climate change, but belatedly some national and state politicians seem to be waking up to global warming. Perversely, however, the issue of climate change remained largely absent from the presidential campaign, and both candidates seemed wedded to the underlying mantra of endless economic growth, a doctrine which has contributed to extreme weather in the first place. The planet urgently needs to act on climate change, but to question fundamental assumptions about the economy is to risk derision and probably even ridicule within the present context of U.S. politics. Given such constraints, how should Occupy promote its environmental agenda?

Return of the Humble Oyster?

It's a challenging dilemma for activists because climate change is a very abstract concept to convey and most people have difficulty grasping the true scope of the problem, not to mention the radical economic and technological changes which will necessarily be in order. In light of such limitations, perhaps the most central thing for activists to recognize --- at least initially --- is the importance of stressing non-threatening symbolism over ideology. As the city that inspired other Occupy movements across the country, New York should take the lead in developing such catchy symbols, and fortunately some have already come up with intriguing suggestions.

Curiously, a recent New York Times article suggests that the humble oyster could play a vital role in combating the ravages of climate change within the metropolitan area. At one time, oysters built up enormous underwater reefs, which protected New York from storm surges. "Just as corals protect tropical islands," the piece notes, "these oyster beds created undulation and contour on the harbor bottom that broke up wave action before it could pound the shore with its full force."

At one time, the bivalve population numbered up into the trillions and assisted in coastal defense all along the eastern seaboard from Boston in the north to Washington in the south. Ingeniously, oyster beds also play a vital environmental role through efficient filtration. Indeed, a single oyster can filter as much as 50 gallons of water per day. Such filtration allows marsh grasses to grow and extend their root structure, which in turn helps to stabilize and hold shores together.

Environmental Symbolism

The humble oyster, then, has fulfilled a vital environmental purpose but has also played an important role in the local economy. Few are aware of such history, and it's a theme that activists might want to touch upon in the coming weeks and months. As far back as the 1600s, the Lenape Indians of New York ate oysters and discarded the shells in large so-called middens. When they first arrived, the Dutch observed that the estuary of the lower Hudson River still contained 350 square miles of oyster beds. Oysters were so abundant, in fact, that the Dutch called Ellis Island "Oyster Island" and Liberty Island "Great Oyster Island." Later, oysters contributed greatly to the mercantile wealth and international renown of the burgeoning New Amsterdam colony.

The British, who inherited New Amsterdam from the Dutch, also went crazy for oysters and the bivalve was equally consumed by both rich and poor. Even before bagels, pizza and food trucks became the talk of the town, cheap oysters were New York's original street food. Every kind of gastronomic creation was marketed, from oyster pie to oyster stew. Oystering later proved to be a particularly popular trade amongst free African American slaves who opened oyster bars in Lower Manhattan. Staten Island, a district hard hit by recent Hurricane Sandy, was also an important center of the oyster trade and by the mid-19th century a number of black oystermen chose to settle within the local community.

New Yorkers embraced original oyster varieties, which grew up to nine inches and longer, including the now extinct Rockaways and Bluepoint from Long Island. Though over dredging later reduced the local bivalve population, New Yorkers continued their mollusk eating habit by encouraging oyster farming. Eventually, oystering became one of the city's biggest industries and by 1880 New York was known as the oyster capital of the world. Unfortunately, however, unsound sewer systems led to the dumping of typhoid and cholera-carrying bacteria into the waterways, while industrial pollutants rendered oysters inedible. In 1916, a local typhoid epidemic led to an official ban on oystering and the industry, which had led to such fabulous wealth, died out virtually overnight.

For the Occupy movement, which had fallen into a state of torpor prior to New York's recent environmental disaster, Hurricane Sandy reshuffles the deck. Perhaps, in light of the catastrophe, the public may be more receptive to political activism with a strong ecological component. Nevertheless, Occupy needs to be careful lest it alienate many New Yorkers who are not yet ready for the coming radical debate about how to transform the economy in a green and environmental sense. It is here, however, where the humble oyster comes into play. If they are shrewd, activists might appeal to the mainstream by declaring the need for greater coastal defense and the repopulation of local oyster beds. As they recruit a wider following, activists might even bring up New York's forgotten environmental history which will come as a surprise to many.

Climate Change, Storm Surges and the Toxic Cocktail

So much for theoretical abstractions. But pragmatically speaking, how can Occupy achieve its long-term goals? Fortunately, even before Hurricane Sandy activists had turned their attention to valuable environmental work within the New York City area. Take, for example, oyster farmers operating within the area of the Gowanus Canal in the borough of Brooklyn. There, local residents, volunteers and young students carried out valuable oyster gardening projects, which have fostered a sense of environmental stewardship in the community.

At one time, the Gowanus was an ecological gem and early Dutch accounts made note of gigantic oysters in local waters, which were literally "the size of dinner plates." These days, however, the Gowanus is in dire need of ecological renewal and recently the Environmental Protection Agency declared the area a federal Superfund site for cleanup. Such efforts come none too soon: for years the canal was fouled by industrial waste and light was unable to penetrate the water so as to sustain life. Though some eels, bluefish and jellyfish now ply the polluted waters, oysters are hardly on the menu. In 2007, a 12-foot minke whale calf infamously nicknamed "Sludgie" perished near the mouth of the canal after it failed to find its way back to open seas.

Like Staten Island, Lower Manhattan and other low-lying areas within the vicinity, the Gowanus is vulnerable to storm surges and the ravages of climate change. In the case of the Gowanus, however, residents are doubly concerned, owing to the threat of toxic overflow from the canal. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the Gowanus flooded local residents' homes in oily sludge. As they clean up from the storm, many wonder how they will cope with future floods. Such concerns are well warranted given extensive future plans to develop the area and build new apartment complexes.

New Political Headquarters for Occupy

Is it time for Occupy to search for a new home? Ever since Mayor Bloomberg evicted protesters from their base in Zuccotti Park, the movement has lacked a fixed base. If they try to go back to Lower Manhattan, there is little doubt that activists will face the same level of political repression, if not more. Given these difficulties, perhaps establishing a headquarters in Brooklyn is not such a bad idea. If they head across the river, activists will be under less psychological pressure and could devote more time and consideration to the reformulation of their movement along environmental lines.

The Gowanus, with its recent history of ecological and oyster conservation, is probably just as good an area as any when it comes to launching a new base. Though Brooklyn is far from the corridors of power, the Gowanus is full of prime real estate and vacant buildings which could serve as a future political headquarters. If they venture into the neighborhood, activists will find a very diverse local crowd, including hipsters, artists, environmentalists and working class blacks and Latinos. The liberal enclave of Park Slope and the nation's largest food cooperative lay just a few blocks away.

All movements have their ebb and flow. In an earlier incarnation, Occupy raised awareness about the nation's corrupt economic elites and social injustice. With the more recent turn toward "Occupy Sandy," we seem to be entering a kind of intermediate phase, which could signal the turn toward something new. In the wake of the storm, activists have established some street credibility by assisting with everyday disaster relief. In the coming months, however, Occupy should hone its message in an effort to bring new people into the movement. Perhaps it's time to start connecting the dots between the earlier social justice work and climate change.