The earthquake in Haiti, one of the largest humanitarian crises in recent memory. The earthquake in Chile, so powerful it shifted the planet’s axis and shortened the length of the day. The floods in Madeira, which shattered bridges and tossed cars onto rooftops. The storm this past weekend in Europe, which killed at least 63 in some of the most developed countries in the world. The crippling blizzards, which have buried the American East Coast in over a foot of snow again and again this year. At this rate the loss of New Orleans in Hurricane Katrina seems to be a phenomenon ahead of its time, a terrible preview of a coming age of ruin. Is this really our future? A world of country-wrecking storms, cities drowned by rising seas, great droughts and famines, and a permanent migrant class of weather refugees?
Oh how I wish it were not the case. I wish that we could go on as before, with disasters a part of human life, but rarely overwhelming for whole civilizations — morally neutral acts of God that perhaps kept us humble and taught us caution. I fear things are no longer so simple. For a variety of reasons, some inevitable, some that could once have been prevented, the new decade is likely to bring us a new relationship with our atmosphere and with cataclysm itself.
The most obvious aspect is climate change, which is rapidly becoming a climate crisis. Warmer global temperatures means there is more energy and moisture in the atmosphere, and this means bigger storms and more extreme summers and winters. Stronger, wetter hurricanes, more frequent tornadoes, more powerful winds, once-in-a-decade blizzards happening every year — call it Bad Weather, capitalized. We can’t stop it, not without immediately cutting carbon emissions by a huge amount, and even then we may be too late to avoid some short term climate change. It will happen all over the world more and more as the climate crisis advances, and of course it will hit poor countries the worst.
Bad Weather has a social component, and perhaps an insidious one. As a phenomenon it is unlike most anything modern civilization, with its unique ability for obsession and violence, has ever had to digest. Pollution has health effects to be sure, but it lacks the shock and awe of tornadoes ripping apart your city or floods washing away your loved ones. Terrorists and other non-state threats are popping up for all kinds of reasons, and technology and the Internet empowers individuals and small groups to personally wreck physical and economic destruction on scales that have never before been possible. What will happen happen when the science becomes irrefutable (to all but the most irrational of deniers, anyway), and the victims of Bad Weather have someone to blame? Historically human beings have not usually taken revenge after acts of God, but then God doesn’t have corporate headquarters that can be blown up. And after all, what better way to cut greenhouse emissions quickly than genocide?
Climate change doesn’t just mean more severe weather, it also means different weather. Rainfall patterns may change, and much of the world’s agricultural infrastructure depends on the regularity of those patterns. Globalization has made it possible for us to grow food where it is most efficient to do so, and then ship it all over the world. But though this is a prosperous set up, it is also a precarious one. Many communities, especially in the developed, world no longer have the capacity to grow their own food if outside supplies are disrupted. Imagine if rain stopped falling on one or more of the world’s major agricultural areas, such as the American midwest, which is literally the breadbasket of the world. Even if the Siberian tundra thaws into perfect farmlands at the same time, hundreds of millions might starve before we adapted our infrastructure. To me, this is one of the most chilling dangers of global warming. Climatologists are working hard to collect reams and data and develop powerful computer models to predict the details of climate change. But until their work advances we won’t know how or when or if global rainfall patterns will shift.
Even without climate change in the mix, this will be a dangerous time. Perhaps it is simply that we have made ourselves a bigger target. There are ever more people on the planet, and we are constantly building more and larger infrastructure. An earthquake that hits an urban area today — any urban area, really — will simply have more stuff to destroy than if it had hit thirty years ago. The more we have, the more there is to take away.
This is not a complaint against development, for technology and proper infrastructure are actually the best ways to protect people and societies from disaster. For too much of the world, however, the things we have built are not strong enough to protect us — quite the opposite in fact. Remember those shoddy apartment buildings and schools in China that collapsed during the huge earthquake there a couple years ago, burying tens of thousands in concrete and rebar? Those sorts of buildings are standard in middle class areas in much of the developing and newly developed world, and hundreds of millions more live in haphazard favela communities that have grown as needed without being designed to withstand the ravages of seismic trouble or Bad Weather.
As the world struggles in the mire of economic collapse, as countries and corporations are set upon from all sides by non-state threats, as the ideal of government and the institution of the nation-state slowly lose credibility around the planet, is it reasonable to expect that we are going to get much of the strong and powerfully designed infrastructure we need to protect us? Technology makes good engineering cheaper and more effective every year, but where does the money come from and who can afford to live in hurricane proof apartments if they were built? Fewer and fewer of us each week, it seems.
This all sounds pretty pessimistic, I know, but of course everything looks bleak through the ash-smeared lenses of economic recession. We are not all going to die. Most of us will be fine, and we will live more or less comfortably through the coming decade. Prosperity and progress will slow to a trickle, and the news media will be filled with reports of refugee crises, energy and food crises and rescue efforts as Bad Weather batters this city or that coast. But we’ll get by, and human life will go on.
Still, I worry. I worry that climate change, sloppy urban development, pervasive global poverty under the recession, and increasingly ineffectual governments will come together to create a perfect storm of a decade filled with disasters. And I worry about how much such a decade will set us back as a civilization.
So what are our options? I once believed in Big Plans: geoengineering, huge clouds of solar panels in space dimming the sun’s rays, giant megastructure projects to literally turn the planet inside out, remaking it to our liking brick by brick. I believed Big Plans could do great good, give people purpose, and help us transform human society into something better and more worthy. I believed in the idea of a visionary democracy that could accomplish these goals.
If we can pull them off, Big Plans are still a fantastic way forward. Our sun puts our so much energy — more energy than we can conceive of — that if we can create the infrastructure to harvest it effectively off planet, it would mean free electricity for everyone forever. We could power inefficient chemical reactions to fix carbon from our atmosphere and cool the planet to whatever temperature we prefer. With abundant electricity we are limited only by our ingenuity and our patience.
But I look at the world today, at our broke and struggling governments and at our paralyzed economies, at unstoppable Bad Weather and crumbling infrastructure — I look at all this and Big Plans seem so remote and unlikely, a dream for another, better time that may never come. But there is a path through this decade and into a new and more secure prosperity for the 21st century. Those few who have developed and promoted the ideas for this strategy call it “resiliency.”
Resilient communities gather together voluntarily to provide for the community’s material needs locally and thereby insulate people from the shocks and ravages of these global crises. Like everything in our world, these resilient communities would be networked and trade with each other, and would have all the the information of the world through the Internet, but storms, conflicts and other disruptions that now cause billions in financial losses and leave towns and cities rioting for food. When we cannot depend on governments and global institutions to protect us and keep the world stable, we must hasten to make our own arrangements. That is the philosophy behind resiliency, and it is a good one and a smart one, the best way towards some kind of prosperity this decade.
So let the winds howl and the rains soak us through. Let the earth shake and let nations and movements rattle their sabres. As bad as the decade gets, if we design and empower our communities to be resilient, we can weather it, whatever may come.