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?
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.