Putting the life back in science fiction

California in the High Altithermal, Part 2: Biopolitics

Note, you can read part 1 in the series here.

Biopolitics.  Such an ugly, synthetic word, but here I want to talk about the chaotic intersection between biology and politics that’s occurring now, because, unfortunately for prognosticators, it’s a big part of what is going to determine what’s still growing in this state in 2100 CE.  The fundamental problem is that, if you’re trying to figure out what’s going to survive a mass extinction and climate change, on the one hand there’s the biology of individual species and their interactions in ecosystems, and on the other hand there’s politics, meaning every thing from peoples’ choice of house plants to international laws.

What I’m going to show here is the mess.  It’s not a nice thing to do, but hopefully I can at least show both why environmental politics matters, and why calls to do more studies aren’t distractions, either.  In the next post I’ll make some predictions about what comes out of this mess, but as in Hot Earth Dreams, I’m walking through the process here, one essay at a time, figuring out the processes before I talk about the patterns that might result.

Borders and Migration

One of the things I constantly forget is that California, as currently constituted, kind of started in 1769 with the Spanish colonial period (this is only a few percent of its total human history), but the golden-hilled state we’re currently used to is mostly 100 years old or less.  For better or worse, it’s an industrial landscape, where that industry is ranching, farming, gold-mining, building cities, providing water, power, and food to cities, or whatever.   These activities have made borders and boundaries all over the state, barbed wire, fences, freeways, cities, and so forth.  To keep California civilization functioning, we’ve bounded the place.

The fundamental problem here is that most species, including humans, deal with crises by migrating to better, safer lands.  This shows up in the various and sundry immigrant crises that have gripped the state, from the crisis of American settlers entering the Mexican colony and staging the Bear Flag revolt (which recently saw an idiotic replay at the Malheur Wildlife Sanctuary), to problems with (il)legal Chinese immigrants, Japanese immigrants, and later Mexican immigrants.  People move to escape crises and find better opportunities, and so do plants and animals.

The problem is that migration is anathema in a bounded civilization.  This is going to be a fundamental crisis throughout the 21st Century, as we deal with climate change: it’s not just about dealing with human migrants, it’s about whether plants moving north across the Mexican border are weeds or refugees, whether to open borders to jaguars and wolves, and all sorts of other management problems.  It’s both ironic and normal that the United States, a nation of immigrants, has so much trouble letting others in, but it’s a pattern that’s repeated itself throughout our history.

So that’s one problem: the politics of borders, which conflicts with the biology and politics of migration.  It’s not just a matter of Mexican and Oregonian borders, either.  Many native species are confined to preserves and parks, areas which act as (often too-small) reservations away from people, places with borders sharply defined by fences.  People in developments often don’t like it when “weeds” and “brush” invade their yards, let alone rattlesnakes and ticks.   Yet how are native species going to move to safety, except by fence-crossing through the yards, streets, and vacant lots of urban coastal California?  Our big cities block migration for so many species it’s not funny.

In Hot Earth Dreams, I proposed the idea of conservation gardens, where people deliberately move plants north to help them through the urban areas.  The problem with this idea is that only a small minority of garden owners even grow native plants, and most of them think of them as a cool alternative form of landscaping, not as wildlife habitat.  Native plant landscapers I’ve talked to think that only a small proportion of the people with native plant gardens would even consider offering their garden as a refuge for northbound migrating plants.  It’s going to take awhile for the idea of a conservation garden to catch on.  Whether it catches on or not, the flora of a future, tropical California are going to contain a lot of garden escapees.  I just hope that some of these escapees were native to southern California or Baja, so I’m encouraging people to open their gardens to migrants.

Invasive species

Last week I heard a talk about the polyphagous shot hole borer, a newly immigrated Asian wood-boring beetle that attacks and kills a great variety of trees, both native and non-native, in California.  It’s here in San Diego, along with the gold-spotted oak borer, a Mexican immigrant which kills oaks.  There are new pests showing up regularly, thanks to global trade.  Indeed, there’s a paper out there  that predicts that “[i]f current trends continue, many important crop producing countries will be fully saturated with pests by the middle of the century,” meaning that all known pests for their biggest crops will be present in the country by 2050.  Diseases and pests are spreading far faster than management, cures, and resistance are.

So we’ve got a proliferating group of non-native and native plants, in gardens, in landscaping, in the wild (as weeds or natives), and we’ve also got a massively proliferating group of non-native insects, bacteria, fungi, viruses, and other things that like to eat them and kill them.  The survivors of this melee are going to be what grows in the state in 2100 CE.  It’s hard to make bets, because sometimes pests jump hosts in unexpected ways.  While you may think this determines what the wildlands look like after our industrialized landscape has shattered and collapsed, unfortunately this also plays into what crops people can grow here.  To pick one example, polyphagous shot hole borer goes after avocados as well as willows.  The hard part about this is simply how unpredictable disease and pest spillovers are.


As a native plant advocate, I’m a natural partisan in what some wags call “the eucalyptus wars.” Eucalyptus trees have been in California for over a century, grown as a get-rich-quick tree and now revered (by some crackpots) for their beauty (as I said, I’m a partisan).   Eucs are a big part of the coastal California landscape, whether you love them or hate them.

As climate change bites down, we’re going to see the same profiteering spirit take hold.  For example, people with trees to sell market them as the Next Big Thing in carbon sequestration, or water-saving shade, or whatever.  The forestry industry is busy reinventing itself as a carbon sequestration sector, where they plant trees and don’t cut them down, getting money from the carbon credits the trees represent, and they’ve persuaded State Parks to try these kinds of plantings in parklands.  It would be great, if they didn’t insist on planting trees adapted to the 20th Century climates that are likely to die if things get a few degrees hotter.  Similarly, Cal Recycle has this brilliant plan to divert all greenwaste (yard clippings, cut down trees containing polyphagous shot hole borers, and so forth) into composting facilities, and then to spread the compost around to sequester carbon in the soil.  Again, this is a great idea, until you realize that California has a complex quarantine system on compost to keep from spreading pests and nuking the agricultural sector, and (at least from what I’ve seen) apparently Cal Recycle didn’t realize this quarantine system even existed when they created their program and got it put into law.  But it’s going to make a big profit for the composters, so that’s good, right?

I can go on, but the key point is that industries are trying to make money off climate change.  Some, like the forestry industry, are going to have huge and probably chaotic effects on future California landscapes.  Predicting exactly what they’re going to try is a little difficult, except that it’s probably going to be crude, and a lot of it is, like many eucalyptus trees, going to go up in smoke.

One subset of the profiteering group is going to call for using genetic techniques like CRISPR and others to create crops and carbon sequestering trees that are heat tolerant, resistant to the pests du jure, and possibly salt tolerant as well.  While I’m not saying these are inherently bad ideas, in California, the use of any “frankenspecies” is going to be highly controversial, and its acceptance will be politicized.  Unless there’s a really bad crisis, like climate change, causing people to flail around for any solution that looks workable, in which case they will adopt it and silence the critics.  We’ve already had some examples, like  reed canary grass, of plants bred to be tough turning into serious weeds.

The Resulting Mish Mash

Right now, politics wants civilization and wildlands separate, each in their place, with different species, different laws, different traditions, and different constituencies protecting them. This will all shatter as we head towards the High Altithermal.  Hopefully, you can see how chaotic migrations, new pests, and new species, introduced by accident or intentionally, are going to interact chaotically going forward, just as they have for the last 400 years or so.

This isn’t a counsel of despair.  If anything, it’s a call to action, and hopefully you can understand why I remain involved in California environmental politics.  Our actions do have long-term consequences, and I personally want to see as many native species survive as possible, wherever it is they’ll end up surviving.

I should note, in closing, that these problems are pretty much global.  If this gets to you, you might want to get involved too.

Did I miss any other big biopolitical factors?  In the next post I’m going to talk about High Altithermal landscapes and such.


14 Comments so far
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Re: Conservation gardens. Interesting idea, but has anyone modeled it to see whether it would actually work? I imagine some sort of percolation m9odel might be appropriate.

Might it be backed up by truly massive “green houses” that maintain biomes in a static geographic location, rather like the greenhouses at Kew Gardens, England? Of course we might also get the same problem as depicted in the movie “Silent Running”.

Comment by Alex Tolley

I wasn’t thinking about anything so mechanical or systematic, and zoos and botanic gardens certainly do take this approach.

My thinking is simply that a lot of non-native plants escaped from people’s gardens and landscaping, and this is also true of native plants from other areas that have escaped and naturalized. I’m just trying to use this process to help save plant species.

Right now, the native plant community tends to strongly prefer locally native plants, this in response to a lot of idiocy that’s gone on (“why can’t I plant redwoods in my desert garden? They’re native, just like you said you wanted.”). I’m working more to change this thinking, because it’s inconsistent with plant migration.

The counter-argument, often from Republicans, is to plant weedy species because “they’re obviously fit, and isn’t that what your Darwin said was best anyway?” I guess environmental Darwinism follows on social Darwinism, and it’s equally wrong headed (check out the enemy release hypothesis if you want to see why environmental Darwinism is such a bad idea).

Comment by Heteromeles

Nevertheless, if native plants are to migrate with climate, can the patchiness of a few gardens provide that migratory path, even with deliberate planting my humans, or will it be too small an effect and fail?

The local “politics” can kick in when neighbors complain that the front yard isn’t a neat lawn, and cities (like San Jose) can fine you if neighbors complain your yard is untidy looking.

Back in the UK, I let my front and back gardens just grow wild, first with grass. The neighbors came by while I was out, mowed and dumped all the clippings and asked me to pay for their work. Bot so easy being “different”.

Right now I am hoping my back yard can be made into a community fruit and vegetable garden to help out the poorer members of the local community. All I want is to ensure that the garden also includes plants that encourage pollinators and birds (the organic gardening should encourage insects and other soil organisms). I’m priming my neighbors so that there won’t be a fuss, but you never know.

Comment by Alex Tolley

If you’re in San Jose, contact the Santa Clara Chapter of the California Native Plant Society for ideas. In general, you can get away with labeling native plant patches as wildlife habitat gardens and low-water landscapes. There are a number of natives that are excellent nectar plants, and they like areas that don’t get too much water and no fertilizer.

In any case, California made it illegal for HOAs to fine people for ripping out lawns and replacing them with drought tolerant landscapes, and if you’re planting natives, they tend to be drought tolerant.

The challenge is that most natives in the horticultural trade are clones (read cultivars), so there’s not much diversity to be gained from growing them. If you’re trying to help plants migrate, you’ve got to grow seeds from south of where you live.

As for genetic diversity, it’s all over the map, (some species are clones, some are hyperdiverse, and almost all are understudied) and it’s more worried about than quantified.

Comment by Heteromeles

I used to live in Silicon Valley, but now I live in the Central valley. I didn’t know about the issue of narrow genetics for native plants. Any suggestions about where to source good plants (without digging them up in the wild)?

Comment by alexandertolley

You can email me if you want some direct information. In general, I recommend finding your local chapter of the California Native Plant Society (cnps.org). They’ll have plant sales, know who’s growing natives, how to grow and tend them, and so forth.

Comment by Heteromeles

Already tried that – none near me, and I’m no longer mobile. I’ll see what can be done via mail. I definitely want to give this a try.

Comment by alexandertolley

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