Long term planners, Part 2

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coats_of_arms_of_the_Holy_See_and_Vatican_City#/media/File:Coat_of_arms_of_the_Vatican_City.svg

Last week, it was noted (mostly in jest), that vampires (or some other long lived creatures) could be entities that could see the bigger picture over long time frames.  Of course, they could also be fed up with humanity, so that line of reasoning might be a trifle suspect.

All joking aside, there are long term planners out there, who can think of time frames in decades and centuries.   The city fathers of New York City, when faced with a clean water crises in the 1800s, did the very prudent thing and figured out a plan so that even today, New York City would still have some of the best potable water in the country.

There’s a good chance that vampires aren’t real, so who else might be a potential long term thinker and planner?  The image above, of course, gives it away – the Catholic Church.   For almost two thousand years, the Catholic Church has been a player on the world stage, along with its tiny principality of Vatican City.   The Vatican has been politically powerful at some points, a bit in disarray in others, but it has survived, along with its far flung network of churches, priests, bishops and lay people who are committed to its survival.   That the Church would survive over the long term isn’t a new thing; the book A Canticle For Leibowitz is a classic SF story that posits that the Church might survive even a few more thousand years.

The Church, in theory, should be able to plan a bit better than most institutions and individuals.  The latest pope has commented on climate change, but with regards to the big elephant in the room (overpopulation), not much seems to have been said.  And given the Church’s position on birth control and abortion, long institutional life seems to have no distinct advantage on much long term thinking.

Questions:

  • There are other institutions (not as long-lived) that might have some good long term plans in place; who might they be?
  • Will the Catholic Church modernize, and think about the issue of overpopulation, the real root cause of our predicaments?

 

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Long term planners

commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Vampire#/media/File:Burne-Jones-le-Vampire.jpg

There’s a great quote that might just sum up a lot of the thinking that goes on in the peak-everything movement:

“When you’re one step ahead of the crowd you’re a genius. When you’re two steps ahead, you’re a crackpot.”
— Shlomo Riskin

Certainly, a lot of us have wondered how long things can go on, given the insanity of the S&P P/E ratios, outrageously priced real estate and ever rising college tuitions.  And of course, the rising CO2 and sea levels, the death of various coral reefs around the world, and increasing average global temperatures.  For some odd reason, most people ignore these things, but that’s the way things go.  Even when things get really crazy, and smart people do incredibly stupid things, the system bumbles along.

It’s always been a wonder why so many people ignore things; at Decline of the Empire, many words have been written about the why of this.  The upshot is that (most) humans aren’t cut out for long term thinking.  But with last weeks post, a thought came to mind, especially with the great lines spoken by the two main characters of Only Lovers Left Alive (who happen to be vampires).

Although they seem to be entirely mythical creatures, it is a bit of a shame that vampires don’t exist.  Not that I’m fond of having my blood devoured, it’s just that their very existence would be the kind of long term stabilizing influence our society might need.  Yes, it sounds crazy.  But here this argument out – if beings who could exist for centuries roamed this earth, they would have a far better overview of long term trends and effects.  Only a vampire could state, “And when the cities in the South are burning, this place [Detroit] will bloom.”

This is all a bit of a fanciful argument, but beings with longer perspectives would probably care more about things that those who are here for but a moment.

Questions:

  •  A slightly more plausible situation would be the existence of a long lived group of humans, such as the Howard Families.   Could such a group exist?
  • Would vampires care about the planet, and keeping it habitable for humans?  If vampires regularly fed on humans, it would be considered good practice to keep their environment in good shape.  Since we seem to be driving a stake in the planet (pun intended), this may be another reason why vampires don’t exist.  Or, are they playing the long game, and waiting until the herd is culled a bit?

 

 

Which American city goes first?

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In keeping with the discussion of denial and infrastructure, and the recent situation in Houston, it is important to realize that yes, cities do get destroyed from time to time, and they even get abandoned.  On the abandoned places list, Pripyat (Chernobyl) is the locale most of us may be familiar with; it was a town of almost 50,000 people, and after the accident, it was abandoned wholesale.   Unlike JMG’s stairstep collapse scenarios, the abandonment of Pripyat was relatively quick, making its abandonment a great deal more stark.

The United States has a history of ghost towns from the boom-bust of 19th century gold rushes, but ghost cities would be a whole new thing, and an order of magnitude more impressive.   A Chernobyl-like event near a major city like New York (the Indian Point nuclear power plant is nearby) could necessitate the evacuation of millions of people in a very short amount of time (where would they go?), and might be seen as a fluke.    But if we put such scenarios on hold for a bit (crossing our fingers that only natural disasters, rather than direct human ones are responsible), what cities might be abandoned in bits and pieces, and when?

The quick answer might be to look at Detroit, and say, “it’s happening already!”  Yes, Detroit has had its share of lumps, and yes, the population has dwindled some, but even Detroit is still a going concern (a friend has been trying to get me to visit and start a company or something technical there for years).

An exchange in the very well done vampire movie Only Lovers Left Alive had this particular conversational tidbit.  It brought a bit of a smirk, to find such intelligent discourse and dialogue, befitting beings that could have the long view of centuries:

Eve: So this is your wilderness. Detroit.

Adam: Everybody left.

Eve: What’s that? [as they drive by the huge Packard Automotive Plant]

Adam: It’s the Packard plant, where they once built the most beautiful cars in the world. Finished.

Eve: But this place will rise again.

Adam: Will it?

Eve: Yeah. There’s water here. And when the cities in the South are burning, this place will bloom.

It was an incredible exchange, and it reinforces the notion that if the 20th century was filled with wars over oil, the 21st century will be filled will wars over water.  Even though Detroit is going through tough times now, at the least, it is a hub for water transport (one of the reasons it was founded in the first place (Detroit is a major port on the Detroit River, one of the four major straits that connect the Great Lakes system to the Saint Lawrence Seaway.).  My money is on Detroit still existing, in some way, shape, or form.

Water (and fresh water in particular) will probably be a good reason why cities rise or fall in the coming years.   The “too much of a good thing isn’t great either,” principle applies here as well, so cities that are on the coast may also be candidates for which city “goes” first.   It will probably be a race between cities that are drying up (Phoenix, Los Angeles, Las Vegas), and cities that are vulnerable to sea level rise and extreme storms (Miami, New York, Boston, Washington D.C.).    Cities that were built up because of cheap energy for both air conditioning and cheap travel will also have marks against them.  Cities that are in geologically sensitive areas (or have geologically sensitive architecture) could also be abandoned in quick time (San Francisco and Los Angeles are candidates here, but if the Madrid fault ever lets loose, a lot of cities in the Midwest might be goners too).   A city is more likely to be abandoned if it is predicated on tourism and flash (Las Vegas, Miami) rather than things a bit further down on Maslow’s hierarchy.

My hunch is that if any city is to be abandoned (in the sense that real estate becomes almost worthless, the tax base is eroded to nothing, and it is very difficult to survive there, few people want to run for public office, public services are almost non-existent), it will probably have most or all of these markers.   Looking at a map of the United States, a good guess is that Miami has a lot of these tell-tales:

  • Ocean levels are rising (and many high rises are just off the beach),
  • Temperatures are rising due to global warming and the heat island effect, making it more uncomfortable; you really need air conditioning to live there year round, and the older population that lives there needs air conditioning,
  • The fresh water supply is being contaminated by the ingress of salt water into the surrounding aquifer,
  • As weather patterns change, some diseases that were normally confined to the tropics may start appearing in the region,
  • One good hurricane (again, becoming stronger and more numerous due to a changing climate), and a lot of infrastructure could get destroyed, causing some of the above elements to “pile on” and make even life more miserable for its inhabitants.

Will Miami go this year, or next, or in twenty?  As Yogi Berra would say, “predictions are tough, especially about the future,” and it may be that other effects may lessen this probability.  Older people might not want to (or be able) to leave their homes in the north if transportation gets difficult, expensive, or impossible.   Phoenix and Las Vegas are up there too, needing far too much imported water, food, and electricity to survive, but Miami has the added bonus of being hit by a true force of nature.

One can bring up the example of New Orleans, but New Orleans may have been lucky.  It was hit by a storm, damaged severely, but then brought back to life by a huge influx of outside help (linemen crews came from thousands of miles away to help just rebuild the electrical grid, which was utterly destroyed).  This all before the financial crash of 2008; if that happened again, could they (or we, as a country) afford to rebuild it?

A final thought on this dark prediction business;  Billy Joel wrote “Miami 2017“, released in 1976.  He wrote about a scenario where New York was destroyed and abandoned, and many of the former New Yorkers wound up in Florida (“…Before the Mafia took over Mexico…”).   Irony of ironies; the opposite may be happen; it will be Miami that is abandoned, and New York (above the Palisades, of course) that thrives (at least for a short while).

As always – more questions:

  • Which city will go first?  Is Miami a plausible first candidate?
  • When will everyone know that that particular city is unlivable? Will it be when mail stops, emergency services are dropped, or elections stop?
  • Will any city disband voluntarily, before a real disaster hits, and depopulate in an orderly fashion?  Could a city like New York, with its vast watershed holdings in upstate New York, decide to abandon parts of the city (such as lower Manhattan) and move northwards?
  • Would we simply abandon a city due to the cost of reconstruction?  The costs of Hurricane Harvey to Houston and the surrounding areas are projected to be in the range of 160 billion or so.  How many times can a city or nation handle this?   A billion here and a billion there, and pretty soon you are talking real money, as it has been said.
  • If one city “goes” into oblivion, how will that affect other cities?

Update:

Given the track that Hurricane Irma is taking, it might be retroactively be named ‘Hurricane Princip‘.  Yes, out of order in the naming convention (and with a gender change), but if a hurricane of that magnitude were to hit Miami, the losses (on the order of 300 billion?) could be enough to trigger ripple effects in the banking system.   Imagine if all that highly overpriced mortgage collateral were to vanish overnight.

The passion of infrastructure

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Icon made by Freepik from www.flaticon.com

Infrastructure is something that most of us seem to either look down on, ignore, or not even know too much about.   The lights go on, water flows, the bridges stay up, the Internet keeps bubbling away with cat videos, and all in all, our complex life seems to effortlessly move along… until it doesn’t.  If you are in the Houston, Texas region right now, you may be getting a graduate level degree in How Infrastructure Is Important.

For those of you who have done any camping, sailing, or roughed it in the field in the military, you know of this intimately, of course.   A single tarp in a rainstorm; access to clean water, access to good food, lighting at night, and a warm dry place to sleep aren’t trivial in those scenarios.  But then we go back to our ‘normal’ lives, and the infrastructure fades into the background quickly.

Infrastructure also covers things like organization, safety, backup plans, and a myriad of other ho-hum stuff.  This all may be a bit dry and or unexciting to people, but for those who think ahead, infrastructure is what makes or breaks a society.

When reading about things that go in a crisis, this jumped out at me:

Living near a well with a manual pump is like being in Eden.

Likewise, this tidbit:

…when Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office and asked for an assessment of the risks and threats that the city might face, he learned that a collapse in the water supply system was at or near the top of the list.

If you really want to be awed by how much infrastructure it takes to get water into a major city like New York, check out the story of Water Tunnel No. 3, and some of the engineering that went into it.  The pictures of what has been built hundreds of feet below the surface of NYC are quite eye-opening.

Some of us are natural infrastructure folks; we organize, plan, backup, reinforce, check – all because we know, deep down, that those things are what make our comfortable lives possible.   These things can stop at any time; however, their upkeep can require lots of money, much of which can’t be seen (until of course, something goes wrong).

It isn’t easy to think every day about hot water flowing,  how food got to a grocery store, the lights going on, or making a cellular phone call, and all the background processes that make those things possible.    Perhaps in becoming more cognizant of these things, we might be able to understand things like climate change, the impossibility of an ever expanding economy and growth on a finite planet, overpopulation, resource depletion, and other large scale, long-time constant predicaments we face.    Infrastructure requires a good deal of resources, and things like bridges and water tunnels have lifespans of one hundred plus years, so perhaps, even though we are a species that has an enormous built-in denial “feature,” it may be that understanding infrastructure could help us reckon with the big D of denial.   We need to be passionate about infrastructure.

Afterthought – regarding war, it has been said,  “amateurs talk strategy; professionals talk about logistics.”   That fits in well here.   Perhaps a corollary with regards to people who think about the future is, “amateurs talk technologies, professionals talk about about infrastructure.”

Questions:

  • To the last point – might people who understand infrastructure have less denial in their lives?
  • How can we get people to be more cognizant of infrastructure, and its costs?
  • Why are some people more concerned with infrastructure, and some with the new and shiny distractions (“look, a squirrel!”)?
  • What do you think is the most important piece of infrastructure?
  • What piece of infrastructure has gotten too complicated to maintained well?
  • Which element of infrastructure is the most resilient?  The most delicate?

That river in Egypt…

http://www.amazon.com/Denial-Self-Deception-False-Beliefs-Origins/dp/1455511919/

A recent Radio EcoShock interview of Ajit Varki on the topic of denial really hit home.   A commenter chimed in with the notion of ‘willful blindness’, discussed by Margaret Heffernan.  This, coupled with the commentary over at Decline of The Empire, for me, puts a few more nails in the coffin regarding our species.

All of these bad traits seem to stem from our biology, and it looks like there is no way out.  Technological solutions won’t work (anything from solar energy to Star Trek-style replicators), because our human nature will take over, and we’ll wind up where we are today.

Now what?

One option, as noted by more than a few folks, is that we’ll just go extinct, as countless other species have done over the billions of years.  The option of survival seems pretty slim; John Michael Greer (now posting at Ecosophia.net) posited a bunch of new species will rise and fall in the next ten billion years, and that seems to be the most likely scenario.

The only other scenario that might be considered is that we do the evolution ourselves, but that would require a good deal of rewiring.  We might not even be the same species; going from homo sapiens to  homo X, where the X is Latin for awareness, conscientiousness, or self-honesty; homo cogitantium; homo honestam (help me out here on the Latin, folks – online translations seem a bit fishy…).

Questions:

  • Is this possible, or just another wish for a techno-fix?
  • Might the surviving humans in JMG’s story be essentially a new species?   Would those survivors just be “random” survivors (just lucky), or, would they have a “no blindness” gene somewhere down in their core DNA?
  • Can a species achieve the same sort of technological base we have without willful blindness?  Does it even matter?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Crazy week

?????

It’s been an interesting week.   Perhaps even crazy:

Bitcoin surged to new highs; saber rattling between North Korea and the rest of the world got a bit louder; white supremacists (this, in the year 2017!) had a rally where someone died.  The President seemed to take far too long to come out against the violence.   Transgender military folks are suing the President.

Yes, this wasn’t a week of a 9/11-style attack, the start of a shooting war, a natural disaster.   Yet it seems things that might be reported in the Onion not so long ago are seemingly in our regular news feeds and papers.

Questions:

  • Has the world always been this crazy?   What percentage of news stories do you hear and wonder, “Is this a prank/joke?”
  • What sort of news would, “knock your socks off,” rather than have you yawn and go back to sleep?
  • If you showed the headlines of today to someone thirty years ago, how much would they think was true or not?

Null 4

Nothing much interesting to talk about this week.  Some interesting podcasts to listen to; a list should be made shortly.

Still going through people’s stuff who have passed; it’s amazing how much one person can accumulate.