Photos emerged this past week of the worst coral bleaching event in the history of the Great Barrier Reef. Coral bleaching happens when water is too warm or acidic. Corals under these conditions will expel the algae (zooxanthellae) living in their tissues causing the coral to turn completely white. One of the largest living structures in the world, the Great Barrier Reef is made of these corals. How do we grieve for the dying of this life? Can expulsions in nature help us notice expulsions in our own city? Some people, such as esteemed scholar Saskia Sassen, argue that we must begin connecting the dots between disparate forms of expulsion if we hope to understand issues like climate change or displacement in the modern world.
Two Portland teachers, Becky Henkleberry and Jeff Waters, at Boise-Eliot/Humboldt School, published an article in the latest edition of Rethinking Schools. In their article, a dialog between students is recounted about how 188 houses were torn down to build Legacy Emanuel hospital near what is now Unthank Park:
“’Well, [the 188 houses] were ‘blighted,’ Hailey explained, looking through her graphic organizer, “and so the city said they could [tear them down]. But the article also says that the city was purposefully ignoring neighborhood requests for help [leading to the blight], and we know that the city used’—she looked down at her paper again—‘they used redlining to make sure that the neighborhood was mostly Black people in the first place. So basically, they forced people to live there, ignored them, and then forced them to move by using eminent domain.”
The article discusses a recent article in Governing: The States and Localities that describes Portland as “the most gentrified city of the century.” Henkleberry and Waters explain that “the mechanisms of segregated housing—unfair lending practices, exclusionary laws, eminent domain, urban renewal, and gentrification” led to this fact, even though these mechanisms are not unique to Portland.
There are no analogies between global climate change and displacement. The laws and incentives for growth and scale of complexities are too disparate. But expulsions of life and vibrancy in nature should give us pause to look at expulsions in our own city.
Saskia Sassen, a leading scholar on global studies and high finance, writes about this in her new book, Expulsions. Harvard University Press summarizes the book this way:
“Soaring income inequality and unemployment, expanding populations of the displaced and imprisoned, accelerating destruction of land and water bodies: today’s socioeconomic and environmental dislocations cannot be fully understood in the usual terms of poverty and injustice, according to Saskia Sassen. They are more accurately understood as a type of expulsion—from professional livelihood, from living space, even from the very biosphere that makes life possible.”
Saskia Sassen writes about it elsewhere this way:
“expulsions take on specific forms in each location of the world, and they have specific contents in diverse domains: economy, society, politics. Indeed, they are so specific in each place and domain – and are usually studied in these very specific contexts – that it is difficult to see that they might be the surface manifestations of deeper trends that today cut across the familiar divisions.”
But perhaps that is what the Great Barrier Reef is showing us: we must look beneath the surface. We must understand expulsions at many scales—from the smallest zooxanthellae in corals, to our communities, and to our world.
Expulsions are affecting all of us. A new report by Sierra Club explains that under a new trade deal, the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), corporations could sue a government that passes legislation to fight greenhouse gas emissions. Greenhouse gas emissions acidify oceans. Acidified oceans cause coral bleaching like in the Great Barrier Reef, which is dying. Although corals cover only .1% of the ocean floor, 25% of the world’s ocean life depends on them to survive. So, even though a government may want to express the will of its people, the TPP would enable corporations to expel the interests of people so that it can protect its interests in a stable business environment.
The very smart students of Henkleberry, Waters, and Sassen are showing us expulsions at different scales. We must begin connecting the dots between them. A good place to start is in Portland neighborhoods.