Filed under: Altithermal, climate change, Hot Earth Dreams | Tags: California High Altithermal, climate change, Hot Earth Dreams
One of the things that’s hard about talking about California’s future is that, on the one hand, I’d love to predict winners and losers, and I suspect others would be happier if I did. For example, perhaps the Latinos take over. Or possibly the white ranchers will become the feudal lords of the 24th Century. Or the permaculturalists will agroforest the north, and the Rainbow Family will become a model for future communities. Or the resurgent Indian tribes will reassert their ancient hunting and gathering life-styles, aided and abetted by the native plant enthusiasts who help them rewild the hills. Or Guatemalan migrant farm laborers will teach the people of California how to make milpas to take advantage of the increasingly tropical climate, and we’ll all go Mayan or Aztec or Tarahumaran or some such, and grow coffee under the trees instead of pot. Or the tech tycoons will build their shining arcologies on the hills, beacons of sustainable civilization midst a howling wilderness populated by scattered bands of survivalists.
And I could make a story for each of these. But are any of them stories worth telling because it might be true? Or are they just my biases and preconceptions playing out?
The thing is, while I did my research, I found a lot of evidence to say that such stories are too simplistic. For instance, I found that a tiny minority of California’s African-Americans (<1%, if I recall) work in the agricultural sector. Hmmm, does that mean urban minorities are going to get disproportionately shafted by climate change? Well, it turns out that Californians involved in agriculture are a tiny minority of the state’s population (<1%). So actually, African Americans are proportionately represented in agriculture, and all us urbanites are equally at risk. And farming is an intensely multicultural occupation in California.
Similarly, while I was looking at how American Indian farmers grew their crops in the desert, I ran across an article about what crops Hopis were growing. One of the corn varieties a farmer listed was something he’d got from a Vietnamese friend in the Central Valley, and he was trying it out to see how it worked in Arizona. The Hopis reported they were equally willing to buy commercial seed and try it out as well, although they’d only try it for a year or two before discarding it, if it didn’t work. If the farmers aren’t “staying in their lanes” now to fulfill our preconceptions, why should we assume that the future will be any different? Most gardeners and farmers love to experiment.
In the same article, there were concerns that the Hopis were getting away from their ancestral farming practices, due to the lure of supermarkets and cheap food. Keeping climate-friendly lifestyles and their associates alive is another challenge. For example, white Sonora wheat is becoming an heirloom variety. It used to be grown all over the Southwest, including California, and the soft, elastic dough it makes is one reason norteño cuisine (what Americans call Mexican food) uses so many giant, soft tortillas. Once upon a time, these tortillas were all made with drought-tolerant white Sonora wheat. That’s the kind of mish-mash I’m talking about, where a crop from the Fertile Crescent was brought by Europeans to the Southwest, bred and adapted, only to be mostly discarded after WWII as agricultural norms shifted to our present unsustainable system. And now we’re trying to recover the older systems and save them. Will we be successful? That’s a pretty complicated story right there, and that’s only one crop among many.
The further we go into the future, the more uncertain things become. Racial politics start to matter. Or not. A(nother) Native Renaissance (as with the Polynesian Renaissance of the last few decades) could easily rise, as people turn to more climate-friendly lifestyles. But most importantly, people will move, mingle, and experiment, both before and after collapse. Whatever happens, it will be a mish-mash, a creole. Latino culture in the broadest sense has been that way since Cortes hit the Aztecs 500 years ago and started the whole thing, and the easiest prediction to make is that this borrowing and intermixing will continue unabated. That doesn’t mean that everything will be a melange–after all, look at the rich diversity of Latino culture across the American Southwest, into Mexico, down through Central and South America. There is both diversity and identity in this mix.
And it’s not just Latinos and Latino Cultures. One could easily imagine the saltier edges of the future Sacramento Valley being lined with coconut palms along the berms and mounds, as people adapt Pacific agriculture to deal with the encroaching sea. But will these seaside gardeners be using techniques from the Philippines, Polynesia, Guam, Indonesia, or India? There are people from all these places living in California right now. Years ago, as a consultant doing a biological survey in a flood channel in Los Angeles, I tripped over someone’s taro patch in the storm channel behind their house. That knowledge is currently here, as are the plants. Will they still be here when things collapse, and will they help others survive?
And what will American culture give to that future? Representative democracy, resource districts, Incident Response as the basis for something future militias, ranches that become the feudal estates of rich survivalists? Back in the 60s, pot-smoking hippies were occupying federal lands. 50 years later it’s pot-smoking right wingers like Bundy’s followers. American culture mutates too, and it’s hard to say which way we’ll bounce, after we finish bouncing the way we’re currently bouncing…
You get the idea. This is why I see a future that’s made of up shards of the present, not one where some people win, some people lose, and the winners carry their culture into the Altithermal on the backs of others. It’s more complicated than that even now.
When Is Civilization Reborn (If it Ever Ends)?
The short answer is I don’t know, but I can talk about the issues. So far as I can tell, civilization, in the sense of a hierarchical society where the food producers routinely produce a surplus, so that others can specialize in things like crafting, politics, coercion and the like, depends on conditions being predictable enough that the farmers can routinely produce surplus food. This is a weird wording, but I keep thinking of the Andes. The Inka and their predecessors made an enormous civilization in an area that routinely experiences a lot of crop failures, and they did it by being able to warehouse and move enormous amounts of food. This is the critical point: civilization doesn’t depend on crops always coming in every season, but it does depend on always averaging out food supplies to a surplus, no matter how often its crops fail.
The High Altithermal brings on two challenges. One is an unpredictable climate for about 200 years. This means that farmers (and foragers, and herders) will have to continually experiment and innovate to keep getting enough food. In general, this isn’t conducive to surpluses, although there may be areas (perhaps in the North Coast Ranges or the Klamath) where the complex topography will allow farmers to always find enough productive land that they can keep a town or two going. This is apparently how the Andean cultures survived, even in bad times.
After the climate stabilizes on the warm end 200 years into the High Altithermal, it won’t exactly be stable. There may well be normal droughts and once-in-a-decade (on average) floods. No civilization I know of has worked on making one crop in ten sustain them through nine bad years, so this climatic variability likely limits towns to areas that produce decent crops during droughts, but aren’t wiped out by floods. This is the classic town on a hill overlooking a fertile river valley scenario, and there are some few places in California where it would work. It will be harder to build large towns elsewhere, even in places where a village, a camp, or a self-sufficient ranch could get by. Can districts composed of a few ranch-estates be stable over decades to centuries? Who knows? But it’s a great scenario to explore.
The second problem is that crops won’t be as dependably productive at first, since everything will have changed: temperatures, light, water delivery, pollinators, pests, soils, and so on. It will take time for gardeners and farmers to breed crops and animals that are dependably productive in this brave new world. While they’re working all the myriad mish-mash of details out, there won’t be a lot of surplus resources, and the communities depending on these resources will be small by necessity.
How long will it take farmers to solve this problem? Got me. It took thousands of years for neolithic farmers around the globe to come up with the crops that fed the first kingdoms and empires. It might take thousands of years for our descendants to do the same. Or it might take decades. At this point, we don’t have enough data to even guess. So much depends on how much we prepare now, and how well we learn to adapt going in, through, and out of the first two centuries of the High Altithermal. Hopefully civilization will rapidly rekindle, but it could equally take four or five thousand years for the right mutations to show up in the right crops.
Hopefully this makes sense. The real point is that even if you think you know what’s going on, that doesn’t make predictions any easier. And California’s a complex state, no matter how you slice it.
32 Comments so far
Leave a comment