|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.