From one heatwave to another

The heatwave is an intense meteorological phenomenon, but also a social and urban catastrophe. This is what the summer of 1995 in Chicago reveals: the local environment and the absence of consistent public policy had a lot to do with the heavy toll.

The particularly early heat wave which spread across mainland France during the second half of June 2022 brought back the specter of the 2003 heatwave, which caused the death of nearly 20,000 people in France and 70,000 in Europe (Stern 2020). While the government renewed the type of climate inaction by proposing, as a long-term measure, to support mayors renature cities by planting trees, there is an urgent need to remember simple and basic things: such exceptional meteorological episodes that climate change tends to multiply do not occur as purely natural disasters; they intensify existing social inequalities; and the way in which political and media discourses present them, far from being neutral, shapes their understanding. This is precisely what the American sociologist Eric Klinenberg does in Heat wave. Chicago, t 1995which has just been translated into French.

Initially published in 2002, it was republished in 2015 with a new preface analyzing the effects of hurricanes Katrina (2005) and Sandy (2012) as well as certain environmental measures put in place in Rotterdam and Singapore to adapt urban configurations to climate change. In Heat wave, Klinenberg, now professor of social sciences at New York University, presents the fruit of five years of sociological investigation carried out between 1995 and 2000 when he was a Berkeley thesis. Its subject: the heatwave which hit Chicago in July 1995 and led to the death of 739 people, the vast majority of whom were black, poor, elderly and/or isolated. Against the dominant interpretations of the time which reduced this social drama (p. 65) weather conditions or have approached it from a strictly health point of view, the sociologist defends the gains in knowledge brought by the social sciences and their methods of investigation. He also emphasizes the specificities of heat waves compared to other climatic events (hurricanes, tsunamis) and the challenges that this poses for researchers in the social sciences: Heat waves are silent and invisible assassins of silent and invisible people, and the social conditions that make them so deadly are not so much hidden from view as disdained by the media and their audiences. (p. 75) The least we can say is that such a text is timely.

The social autopsy of a forgotten catastrophe

Klinenberg sees his investigation as a social autopsywhose objective is (to examine) the social organs of the city and (to identify) the conditions which then contributed to the death of so many residents (p. 64). To do this, he builds a formidably effective argumentative structure. After a prologue describing in detail the heatwave days of mid-July 1995 and their tragic consequences, the introduction sets out the empirical and theoretical foundations of the work which unfolds over five dense and fascinating chapters.

First of all, it is a question of accounting for the combined effects of social differentiation which, at several interrelated levels, have produced such excess mortality among particularly vulnerable groups. In the first chapter, the sociologist shows, with supporting statistics, the extent to which isolation, that is to say the fact of living in radical disconnection from networks of acquaintances, parents or formal support (p. 97), played a determining role in the phenomenon of excess mortality caused by the heatwave. Not surprisingly, physical isolation and social loneliness combine with other social determinants, such as gender, age, race and social class.

But these social properties take on meaning and form in conditions socio-ecological specific local areas, such that two neighboring neighborhoods presenting similar risk factors were able to know radically different mortality rates during the crisis (p. 99). This is the first originality of the survey results, presented in Chapter 2. Examining the physical and social environment of the neighborhoods of North Lawndale, predominantly black, and Little Village, predominantly Hispanic, Klinenberg shows how elements such as the shape of streets and their paving, the presence of lively businesses, residential stability, the local geography of drug trafficking, the density of the institutional fabric and mutual aid networks (churches, neighbor associations), what he calls social infrastructurehave shaped the forms of public space and the daily practices of residentses, particularly in terms of mobility, with some isolating in their homes to avoid street danger. In such circumstances, the social costs of fear of the streets and fear in the streets were brutally manifested during the heatwave, when the isolation strategies adopted by residents to protect themselves backfired (p. 199). The crisis represented by the heatwave thus appears to reveal existing lines of cleavage and inequalities.

When we study the neighborhoods closely, concludes the sociologist, we observe that one of the main reasons for the high mortality rates of African-Americans during the Chicago heat wave is the fact that they are the only ones to be almost systematically segregated and ghettoized. in spaces populated by abandoned buildings, vacant lots, dismal commercial areas, and marked by demographic decline, the deterioration of streets, sidewalks and green spaces and institutional deprivation. (pg. 229)

The attention paid to the local environment to explain a social and urban phenomenon such as the excess mortality of vulnerable people reactivates the long and rich heritage of American urban sociology as it has developed in Chicago since the beginning of the XXe century. But Klinenberg does not stop investigating these factors ecological. On the contrary, considering that the city must be treated as a complex social system of integrated institutions that come into contact and interact in various ways (p. 84), it enriches the analysis with a dimension of critical sociology of public policies. To fully understand the ins and outs of the crisis of summer 1995, in fact, the investigation also focuses on the different institutions which were involved in the management of the disaster and in its symbolic construction as a public event.

The sociologist will thus carry out the investigation within the various municipal services mobilized, from firefighters to legal medicine services including the municipal police and its protection programs. local policeto show how the daily conditions of administrative work and social intervention of the various branches of the municipal bureaucracy prevent local authorities from offering residents the social protection they expect (p. 251). The plunge into what Klinenberg calls state of disaster (chapter 3) is complemented by a gripping analysis of the political reaction of Mayor Richard M. Daley and his team (chapter 4). The author thus reveals to what extent public relations issues guided the choices, silences and lies of a mayor who, in a mixture of blindness and demagogic chauvinism, began by denying the reality of the heatwave (It's hot, it's very hot, but let's not make a big deal out of it. () And yes, we like the Chicago extremes. And that's why people love Chicago, cited p. 288-290), to then reduce the number of deaths and minimize the severity of the crisis.

The production of an official speech on the heatwave had very concrete practical effects: not only Lomit municipal and the multiple forms of denial deployed by political leaders have prevented municipal services from activating emergency programs to respond to problems requiring rapid intervention (p. 306-307), but the public relations campaign, by shaping the terms of public debate, clearly influenced media coverage of the heatwave (p. 307). This, by mainly presenting the heatwave as a natural disaster, largely contributed to its quickly falling into oblivion. This is why, in the last chapter, Klinenberg looks at media discourse and the organization of journalistic work that made it possible by investigating the newsroom of one of Chicago's main local dailies.

The jewel and the case

Since its publication more than twenty years ago, the work has become a landmark, adding to the list of social science classics that have focused on Chicago, city ​​of extremes par excellence, with its clearly divided neighborhoods, its famous segregation and its glaring inequalities (p. 83), to reveal more general mechanisms and processes shaping the urban reality. But Heat wave resonates well beyond Chicago. This is an important work for several reasons.

Through his methods, firstly, he recalls the extent to which empirical investigation and critical distance are pillars of the social sciences. Each chapter is based on extremely rich empirical material collected by the sociologist himself during his thesis through field observations, formal and informal interviews with dozens of actors and actresses, and the study of political and media discourses produced on the heatwave. . However, the quality of the survey is magnified, by a contrast evoking that of a jewel in its case, by the French context in which it was published, marked both by a growing precariousness of the conditions in which young researchers work, by a series of political and academic attacks against critical social sciences, and by a political and media overvaluation of uncritical social sciences nourished by neuroscience and experimental psychology (Foucart, Horel and Laurens 2020).

By his conclusions, then, Heat wave shows how social inequalities, ethnoracial discrimination, environmental injustices and public policies are manifested and articulated in context. By analyzing the 1995 heatwave as a total social fact, a fact that integrates and mobilizes a wide range of social institutions and generates a series of social processes that expose the workings of urban reality (p. 97), Klinenberg provides a striking demonstration of the contribution that the social sciences can make to the public debate around collective solutions to climate change, far from the media companies of greenwashingdisinformation and valorization of a transition ecological also quintolent consensual (Bcot et al 2022; Correia 2022). It thus underlines how urban governance managerial (p. 246), characterized by the obsession with efficiency, the outsourcing and delegation of social protection tasks to institutions that are not trained in it, the requalification of userses of public services into clear consumers, and the systematic use of public relations and marketing campaigns, results in a collective resignation in the fight against poverty and isolation despite urban prosperity (p. 249).

We may also regret that the editorial apparatus weakens the critical impact of the book. The title of the collection in which it appears Heat wave ( from the Anthropocene) and the foreword by geographer Michel Lussault, which links the work to the issues of resilience and the preparation of cities for climate disasters, minimize the socio-political divisions and the relationships of domination and exploitation which underlie and produce the climate crisis. Because it is indeed the unequal order of things and the neoliberal ideology which justifies it which are at issue here.