Sunday, November 11, 2012

urban resilience: what sandy has shown us

William Livingstone House
from: "The Ruins of Detroit" by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre

Hurricane Sandy has been an interesting window into what Americans in a dense urban area will do when deprived of power, water and all of the other things that we take for granted in the early twenty-first North American city.

Fist fights are breaking out in lines at gas stations, as suburbanites wait to fill their cars with hard to find gasoline.  New Yorkers are stranded as the trains stop, crank up generators if they have them, and plan to get them if they don't.

We walked down to the neighborhood coffee shop this afternoon, at the kids urging, and we had coffee, they had hot cocoa and cake lollipops (a first- and also very likely the last- only one was actually eaten).   While there, I had a chance to page through a copy of the New York Times that someone had left behind.  Apparently people are still without power in parts of Long Island and New Jersey.  But, rather than turning to solar panels on the roofs of the brownstones and McMansions, many are turning to natural gas generators, hardwired to their gas supply.  Apparently these generators are able to sense a power loss, then automatically engage and restore power to the building.

I generally have a positive opinion of people in the Megalopolis region of the East Coast, so I'm not disparaging them simply for the act of choosing to live in New York or Philadelphia, but in how many ways is this weird?  Read the article I linked to in the previous paragraph and imagine for yourself.

Let me count the ways in which I think this is indicative of a sort of paralysis of creative and productive thought in this country:

First - solar panels or any sort of alternative energy source aren't considered first and foremost.  I'm sure that at least some in the affected region are considering them, but the quote saying “The wives in this area don’t want jewelry for Christmas. They want generators”, was telling.

So they'd rather spend $5000 for a system that will be used rarely, and will be a liability the rest of the time, rather than a system that would be used every day to save money on power, and, yes, also be available when the grid goes down?  How does this make sense?

Second- If this is a matter of disaster preparedness, the next time this happens, it may not be in the form of a flood or an ice storm.  How about an event that disrupts natural gas lines, such as an earthquake?  What does the natural-gas burning generator do then?  It becomes a $5000 paperweight in the basement is what it does.

Third- How is it so difficult to live without electricity for a week?  I know we've become dependent on it for just about everything, but the extent to which becomes kind of shocking when it's gone.  It's hard to live without a fridge or security system, when you don't have a root cellar, or know your neighbors.  It's really hard to live without a TV when you've allowed developed a dependance on it.

And really- is there a more co-dependant appliance than the TV?  We burn coal and gas to feed electricity to it, to then let it take us away to somewhere better than this burnt and poisoned land that we've somehow come to live in.  And the more poisonous it becomes, the more beautiful the things it shows us become.  Beautiful, unreal people living beautiful unreal lives, and dancing with the stars.   Many of my fellow Americans will do anything to keep feeding it, rather than look at what we've done to our analog world.

Fourth- New York's air quality will be worse than Calcutta's if, after the next major disaster, millions of diesel and gas-powered generators kick on to keep the TVs and security systems running.  One of the success stories of the last half of the 20th century has been the improvement in air and water quality in the large cities of the western world.  Granted, it sometimes came at the price of rural or suburban air  and water quality, but the urban squalor depicted by reformers early in the last century are mostly a thing of the past.  The tenements of 1900 are now expensive brownstones and warehouses have become artist lofts.  That could change quickly if the air is once again choked with fumes and soot clings to the brick and stucco of fashionable buildings.

Fifth- Does this mean that all of these places are simply going to be rebuilt just as they were in the same places they were?  I realize that it's a very popular and patriotic sentiment to say you're going to rebuild everything just as it was in the aftermath of a catastrophe.  But that doesn't make it a good  idea.  As a matter of fact, it's a really stupid idea.  That is- to rebuild in a floodplain, or on a sandbar, after a natural disaster, a disaster which is likely to reoccur sooner rather than later, for reasons that are not natural at all.  We've juiced the atmosphere, and we're seeing the results.  Even if we collectively aren't going to take action to stop the juicing (and it's pretty clear that we're not, at least until oil becomes too difficult or expensive to extract), it would tell a reasonable person that we need to begin adapting.  And adapting in this case would mean to build more resilient systems for living, away from disaster-prone areas.

Even a half-mile inland would be less disaster-prone than the low-lying and sandy ocean coast.   Yes, there is a lot of inertia in the price of real estate, and the ocean is really beautiful.  But it's more beautiful if the entire coastal zone becomes a park, with access for all, than a series of fenced-off private beaches with no trespassing signs.  And vinyl-sided McMansions.  I know it's a terribly un-american thought, but I'm just saying.

There may be more, but five is what I can think of off the top of my head.

It makes me wonder how my city- St. Paul- would deal with a disaster of this proportion.

We aren't on an ocean's coast, or a fault line.  This isn't tornado alley, though weak tornadoes seem to hit on a regular basis.  But the changes in the climate are making certainty rarer, and things that may have been certain before are now less so.

Of course, I have to be careful not to fall into what may be the most common and least remarked on meme in the peak oil scene.  That meme would be declaring that the geographic area in which I happen to reside is, without doubt, the best possible place to ride things out when tshtf or even teotwawki.

And, being that this has been my home for over twenty years now, this probably is the best place for me to be when times are difficult, or disaster strikes.  I have friends and family here, and a vegetable garden, and know who to borrow tools from if I need them.

But that doesn't mean that most other people would be best off riding out a natural disaster, or the end of cheap oil here.  Depending on one's stage in life and familial connections, the city, the suburbs, small town or rural area may be the best place to be.   Because knowing people, and knowing the culture of an area may ultimately be more important than a stockpile of gold, or access to municipal water.

Are you more comfortable dealing with adverse weather or adverse people?  If you'd prefer to deal with adverse weather, then, like myself, the Upper Midwest may be a good place to be.  Others may prefer to take their chances with adverse people, but not have to be concerned with possibly freezing to death five months of the year.  There are trade-offs to be made. 

Living in a city presents challenges of its own.  I'm fairly dependent on municipal water, electricity, sewer and trash collection to survive, at least in the long term.  Without those services, large cities don't survive for long.

Or do they?  To look at examples with which I'm familiar; Minneapolis- St. Paul has a population of about 3.3 million.  Greater Kathmandu, where much of my wife Gita's family lives, has a population of about 2.5 million.  The core cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul have a combined population of 672,000, while the city of Kathmandu's is almost exactly 1 million. 

While the MSP metro has all of the services I mentioned above, Kathmandu has very little.  The very core of the city has reliable phone service, but phone and internet is otherwise spotty.  Electricity is available through most of the city- for eight hours on a good day.  There is no sanitary sewer; most sewage goes directly into the rivers.  There's also no municipal water, and most residents buy water from itinerant water trucks, or harvest rain off of their roofs. 

Despite this, Kathmandu is a functioning and even dynamic city.  Nepalis find ways to make up for the lack of infrastructure, or make do without.  Almost everyone has a cell phone, since wired telephone service is unreliable, and most middle-class houses have battery banks and an inverter to gather electric charge while electricity is available, and discharge it when it isn't.

Harvesting water off of flat roofs and purifying it, then heating it with solar heaters is seen as a fringe-green idea in the US, but is fairly common, at least to those with the means to do so in Nepal.  Gita's brother has a functioning system, which I was fascinated by.  But he couldn't understand why an American would find such a thing so interesting.

The uninteded result  of the poor or non-existent infrastructure is a personal and societal resilience that is hard to find in a country like the US.

The personal resilience takes the  form of being willing to do without, and creatively adapt to get necessities.    Nepalis will light a candle and warm a cup of chai on a propane stove, and the conversation that was going on before the lights went out continues.   New Yorkers talk of hunting down those responsible for not having  the electricity re-connected after ten days.

Maybe we've been spoiled by having too much too easily for too long and not knowing how or why the systems work that provide these things for us.  Nepal has never had the luxury of being spoiled and has created a series of work-arounds, or more accurately, has never given up on the old and reliable technologies that have made people comfortable for millenia.

That said, I'd like to believe that in a permanant crisis situation were to develop, a similarly sized metro like Minneapolis-St.Paul could re-learn some of the habits of resilience that are commonplace in Kathmandu.  Since I hope to live a few more decades, I imagine I'll be able to see whether or not that takes place.

Because, even if the electricity turns off completely, or even mostly, the sewers in a hilly metro still run downhill.  Sporadic electricity can pump water on a good day into the water towers, to keep less-sporadic water flowing.  We can learn to live without electric lights in every room all the time, and green lawns during droughty seasons.

Maybe suburbanites can't live without green lawns on second thought.  But I don't expect the far-flung suburbs to continue in the way they have.  They're already beginning to contract at the edges, and I expect that will continue.  That may be one silver lining of the great recession thus far.

Maybe you agree with me- maybe not.  I'd be interested to hear other points of view, and thoughts on the resilience of the country, state, city, town or rural area you happen to live in.  Leave a comment if you're so inclined.  While I am aware that this may be feeding into the same meme I just disparaged, it's something worth exploring- and better explored while it's still in the realm of theory, before the  lights, and the computer you're reading this on- go off.


  1. Solar panels go down with the grid, unless your completely disconnected, in which case your electric is solely provided by solar energy.

    1. BTW- I just finished reading Apocalypse Mom the other day. It's a really good read. Are you planning to do more installments?

    2. Hi Jeff, this is Thomas Daulton, Justin's co-writer on Apocalypse Mom, and I was skimming through 8th Acre Farm and noticed your question here. We are hoping to do more installments, but both of us happen to be in the middle of changing jobs and moving -- a long process, much more drawn-out than it probably should be -- so we haven't gotten to it yet. Keep checking later, though!

  2. Hi Justin. That's a good point. Conventional systems as installed now are made to be either a grid-tied system or off-grid. We're still using 1970's technology to deliver the power, even as the solar cells are advancing in efficiency and declining in cost. I would be willing to bet that the software that could switch a solar system from grid-tied to off-grid as the power went down could be written in an evening by a smart programmer. And I would imagine that the extra hardware cost of a few deep-cell batteries and an inverter wouldn't add more than $500 to the system. That's my two cents. What do you think?

  3. Actually, Jeff, you are correct. We have a friend, here in Maine, who has a grid-tied solar array with a back-up battery bank and an inverter. When the grid goes down, his back-up batteries kick in. During regular times, his system is charging his batteries and providing power to his house. If he's using more electricity than his system is producing, he gets electricity from the grid, but if he's using less than his system produces, he feeds electricity to the grid. He jokes that he never even knows if the grid power is off, because there's never an interruption in his electricity.

    We're planning a different system. Ours will be two separate systems, actually - the grid, which currently powers our whole house, and a separate, not-tied-in alt system. The plan is to start small with a couple of solar panels, an RV-sized windmill, and the bike generator (which we already have and use) all feeding a battery bank. We'll start powering some appliances (like the freezer in which we keep all of the chicken we raise every year), and hopefully, get to a point where our essential appliances are all self-powered, and anything else, we can learn to do without.

    I completely agree with the notion that we'd all be better off with small community or individual-sized power generation systems. It just makes more sense, and it seems to me would make us a lot more resilient. Imagine if all of those New Yorkers/New Jerseyans had personal power stations consisting of alt-energy systems (wind, solar, pedal power, methane digesters ... urine-powered generators), there would be, at least, one less thing for them to be upset about.

  4. As for the natural gas generators, Obama himself has repeated that lie about 100 years of natural gas in the state of the union, at the convention and the debates. No surprise most people are clueless. I wonder how solar panels deal with hurricane or tornado wind though, or a collapsing empire. I'd be more inclined to install a methane backup. That would run lights, but not a freezer full time. You can generate electricity with solar heat, with the right motor, but you'ld need a greenhouse in the Winter.

    You also don't need near as much electricity to get water into water towers, as you do making it fit to drink. Most MPLS/ST Paul water comes from the Mississippi. Which is flowing out of fields they pour myriad poisons and massive amounts of pig and cow crap, and water that was filtered from sewage, in every municipality up river. Best to start caching what falls out of the sky.

  5. Hi Wendy- thanks for backing me up. I figured there must be some systems of that design already in existence, so I'm glad to hear that there are. I'm thinking on my own non-grid tied system that will power my garage and let me charge tools and possibly more. We don't currently have an electric line to the garage, so the economics of installing solar vs running a line from the grid works out pretty well. Not to mention we'll have power when it goes down everywhere else.

    I looked at the link re: urine-powered generators. Sounds interesting, if a bit complicated. Poo-powered generators- that is, natural natural gas has been used in Nepal for decades now- although Gita said a lot of people will switch back to propane because it's stinky. But it's better than nothing! BTW-- urine is a fantastic fertilizer- very high in nitrogen- more than almost any other naturally occurring thing. When I can get away with it, I put in on my roses and in my compost pile.

    Hunter- well- the president is a politician- so I'd expect nothing less. A chicken in every pot and natural gas for every propane grill. I'm still happier to see him in office than the the other guy.
    As drinking water goes, I'm in total agreement. Another dream of mine is somehow working a Roman cistern into the backyard. I'm not sure how that would go over with my better half though.

  6. i read this rather late, but as an east coaster i took some of the brunt of hurricane sandy...the 50+ mph winds blew my screen door open with such force that it busted a porch rail next to the door....! so this left me thinking, would solar panels sustain such winds (or harsher)? wouldn't it be easy for the roof-mounted panels to be blown off? also, as an apartment dweller, i don't have the option of solar panels AFAIK, a generator much less (not that i would be tempted to use one). so where does that leave low income tower block dwellers in NYC? it is hard to be self-sufficient when the system works against you...that being said, and you say eff the system, what could you do?

    several years ago, an ice storm took the heat and power out in my (own) house for about 4 days in one of the coldest/snowiest winters on record in new england. my survival tactic was candles, blankets and also to power some things off of a UPC (those big power backups for computers, generally in offices). we could charge it at work and then bring it home to power the heater in the basement. maybe something like this, solar powered in a window, would be a viable option for city dwellers.

    jeff, do you know if traces of heavy metals in urban soil can be found in vegetables grown in or above the soil? to a point where they could affect human health?

  7. Hi beej- it's good to hear from you again. Sorry to hear that you were hit by Sandy as well. Sounds like you made it through intact- so that's a plus!

    As far as solar panels- yes they could be damaged by wind. I understand that it's becoming more common to mount them flush with the roof now, or hopefully soon as solar shingles, rather than an add-on to the roof. I know that there are companies online that sell small panels that can be hung in a window and which can power a laptop. That clearly won't be enough to power an electric heater, but it could at least keep communications up.

    I guess my response is mostly directed toward those with the means to put in solar panels, but who choose a generator instead. We're all free to make our own choices, but we all may pay the price for those individual decisions.

    Re: heavy metals in soil. I've done some research on lead in soil as a part of our community garden, and it isn't very mobile. It tends to stay in the soil. Carrots or parsnips or other root veggies are really the only dangerous ones, becuase some of the soil stays on the vegetable. Tomatoes or celery, or other non-root crops are considered safe. I grow in lead-tainted soil and eat them myself and (I think) don't have any issues.

    1. sandy didn't blow away my kale - still got that and some swiss chard in the garden. i live in a neighborhood of 1920-something houses (prolly like yours) which probably have their fair share of lead in the soil. i built up my my garden bed pretty well with fresh soil, but i was still a bit nervous about heavy metal contamination. the other thing is that i recently got a blood test back saying i had unusually elevated levels of iron, so i was wondering if it might be related to the soil in my summer garden. i guess i'd better stay away from magnets!

  8. With one little conceptual tweek, I think natural-gas-powered generators are a wonderful idea, if the heat they produce is put to use so that the electricity becomes the byproduct. Alas, while I hear they are popular in Japan, I have been searching for 10 years to replace my natural gas boiler with such a cogenerator.

    And my part of the country is a terrible place when TSHTF or TEOTWAWKI, everyone else should stay away ;-) Actually, anyone reading this would be more than welcome. It's the "zombies" deprived of their TVs I'm concerned about. The only TV in my house is through Netflix, and the DVD I have from them I got over 2 months ago.