Putting the life back in science fiction

California in the High Altithermal, Part 7: The Mish-Mash and the Rebirth (?) of Civilization

This is an ongoing series.  Here are links for Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, and Part 6.

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
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Looking at your hypothesis for why California with become effectively depopulated in teh future you give:
1. Rising sea levels,
2. Climate chnage reducing water suppklies , changing growing conditions and related effects on food production
3. A super storm
4. A massive earthquake
On top of that we have varoious forms orf “annoyances” like tropical diseases.

It seems that you put more weight on an earthquake or superstorm to effect a mass migration, as the population decides it isn’t worth rebuilding and leaves en masse.
I not only find that hard to believe, but absent other reasons, the transient nature of such events will result in people migrating inwards after the events have passed. In addition, while a superstrm might be problematic, we have been earthquake proofing structures for some time. While they won’t survive a magnitude 10 quake, they will mostly survive smaller ones.

So are the first 2 factors the main effects that will keep people migrating away?

I looked carefully at the fising sea level maps at the link you provided. Even at 60m, Most of San Francisco is above sea level. I also note that at 13m, flooding is mainly around the Sacramento delta. At 60m, the ocean incusion is deep into teh Central Valley. But here’s the thing, I note that there are 2 choke points that could hold back that flooding – firstly at the Carquinez sStrait, and secondly at the outlet of the SF bay where the Golden Gate bridge is located. Given technological progress over the next century, I find it hard not to consider that building barriers with locks won’t be possible, which completely solves the problem. You have intimated that part of te problem will be a lack of cement to build concrete structures, but even if this is teh case, there are other materials that will work.

I give you that LA is more problematic, but wedon’t lose very much land area at 13m, and there is plenty of room to migrate new construction inland over the next few centuries, abandoning just the coatal strip.

So we finally have to consider whether water and related food production is the decisive factor. The more we have have tropical storms, the more fresh water is potentially collectible. In addition, urban water can be supplied by desalination already, as well as treatment of black water. Another century of development and urban water shortage will be a non issue. Surburbia may no longer have lawns, but that isn’t a loss IMO. Agriculture is more of a problem, but even if mitigation is not possible and we end up with greenhouse agriculture to partially feed cities, is this a disaster? As long as food can be produced somewhere and transported in, just as we do today, there is no reason to abandon California, and at worst agricultural land reverts to a wilderness/desert landscape.

Unless there is reason to assume that industry will collapse, I see no reason why teh SF bay area, A retreating LA and other inland cities will not continue to thrive in such an industrial world. I would hope that CA is largely powered by renewable energy, especially solar, that energy efficiency is high, with some energy hungry processes largely abandoned due to cost, recycling and substitution.

As for climate, and Stross’s “fear the skies” mentality, I see no reason why we cannot build more enclosed structures that are protective and climate controlled. Canada has extensive underground malls (e.g. Montreal), and we have examples of almost lunar city designs in Las Vegas (Caesar’s Palace, The Venetian). Low rise, variably transparent “domes” are easil;y built over cities and suburbs to maintain comfortable conditions, much like urban vertical farms will ensure locally produced fresh fruit and vegetables.

I understand that these suggested technologies seem almost unimaginable today due to scale, but that is because teh age of heroic construction has passed in the US, and the mantle falling on the shoulders of the Chinese, who have built at a ferocious rate. With robotic machines coming on stream, I see no obvious technological barrier to keeping California fully populated with a higher standard of living than today. Beek might be a rarity on the menu, as might non-farmed fish, or indeed any salt water fish if CO2 emissions are not just curbed but we reverse the CO2 balance in the oceans. California’s famous weather might be enjoyable unfiltered for parts of the year, and beach going may be considered an uncomfortable endeavor for anything beyond a short visit.

So that is my counter argument. I don’t see the population declines in the face of climate change that you do, simnply because the existing infrastructure is too valuable to abandon and there are technological solutions to at least partially mitigate the changes. We will still see massive devastation from earthquakes and flooding, but just like teh Mississippi floods, the land won’t be abandoned once the fllod waters retreat. Arable land that is lost can be turned to other uses, like solar farming, that is not so subject to climatic conditions for success. A techno-utopian dream? Perhaps. But comsider, where are 30+ million people going to migrate to if conditions get bad? They will more likely die. I would rather we use our energies to secure a future than do little and let such a scenario unfold.

Comment by alexandertolley

“, I note that there are 2 choke points that could hold back that flooding – firstly at the Carquinez sStrait, and secondly at the outlet of the SF bay where the Golden Gate bridge is located. Given technological progress over the next century, I find it hard not to consider that building barriers with locks won’t be possible, which completely solves the problem.”
Not something I think would have much support or the money to do, but you could run a levee from Richmond to the south shore of the Golden Gate. This would keep the south bay at its current level. You would also be giving up the Oakland Port facilities and oil docks in Richmond. But you would still be flooding the central valley.
If you built your dam across the Golden Gate, you would still need to find a way to get all that water from the Sacramento and San Joaquin river systems into the ocean. I suppose you could pump the water over the mountains to irrigate the Mojave desert.
But I seriously don’t expect any of this to happen. The major barrier would be cost. There are also environmental laws which would have to be changed.
There is also a lack of political will to address problems such as sea level rise. In general, politicians can only act after a disaster not beforehand. By the time water is a foot deep in San Francisco’s financial district during spring tides there may not be enough of an economy left to do anything other than walk away.

Comment by Wolfgang Brinck

“If you built your dam across the Golden Gate, you would still need to find a way to get all that water from the Sacramento and San Joaquin river systems into the ocean. I suppose you could pump the water over the mountains to irrigate the Mojave desert.”

Pumping water is exactly what they do in Hommand

While I don’t disagree that the contemporay political system cares less for pre-emptive action and more for crocodile tears and promises (usually broken) after disasters, that doesn’t mean it will be the same in the future. The Chinese managed to built the largest structure on Earth to keep out the invaders, and the Dutch managed to maintain a country in the face of rising sea levels. Are we really saying that these countries and periods were better than us with all our resources and technology? If so, then perhaps the sooner we are gone and a better culture takes over, the better.

Comment by Alex Tolley

There have been plans to dam the San Francisco Bay since the 1960s. Once you deal with some rather nasty tidal flows (the tides normal go to Sacramento), then you’ve got to deal with various earthquake faults that cross the bay.

It’s worth realizing, though, that Alex thinks the Chinese will dyke their entire coastline from Shandong to Hong Kong to keep out the rising sea. Personally, I think they’ll invade Siberia and resettle in Tibet first, but it’s hard to say which option is least bad.

Comment by Heteromeles

I’d simply refer to the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, which has mostly abandoned after Katrina. With California, if the money isn’t barely there to repair, let alone upgrade, the levees and other infrastructure along the Sacramento, then I’m even more doubtful that it will be there to rebuild after a major storm. The problem with the ARkStorm is that it takes out water to southern California as well (and part of LA might well flood, but that’s another story). One reason I think people will move is that they’ll be told they’re on rationed water and intermittent power for the next, um, well, probably few years, and once supplies return, they’ll be limited and more expensive, if they return at all. In such circumstances, moving to another city where water and power are more dependable is a better option.

As for dams, I’ll just repeat the same thing I’ve said before: we don’t know how to make dams, let alone locks, that last for 1500 years, when we hit high water (and the new paper suggests 3,000 years to the peak). Anything we build now will be rubble by the time it’s needed.

Comment by Heteromeles

“As for dams, I’ll just repeat the same thing I’ve said before: we don’t know how to make dams, let alone locks, that last for 1500 years”
But we don’t need to. We just need them to last long enough to be cost effective before they are replaced with a new one. Locks in England, admittedly in fresh water, have functioned since canal building was started in the 18th century. The Panama canal has been operational for a century. I seriously doubt they will abandon it when the locks fail.

It comes down to a question of whether society runs out of resources to maintain and repair, even build new infrastructure, or not. I’m optimistic that we won’t abandon infrastructure in the face of disasters,

If you are right, then climate change is almost irrelevant, it is just icing on the cake of civilizational decay. In which case any rosy, high technology future should be abandoned.

Comment by alexandertolley

The question to whether something will be maintained is always “With what resources?” If we don’t have the resources to rebuild when necessary, then things don’t last.

As for the Panama Canal, since they have to climb 26 meters above sea level, without locks it’s a useless shallow river with two outlets, at least until the sea rises 26 meters. The question is whether the Panama Canal will be maintained as well as the Grand Canal In China, which really is about 1500 years old, but which is only partially navigable today.

In any case, for California, I suggest reading some critical histories, like Battling the Inland Sea or The West Without Water. California’s effectively a big experiment in terraforming, taking a place that wasn’t well-“designed” for western civilization and trying to engineer it into paradise, by moving water and food to sunny places that can be sold to people as desirable places to live. This paradise lasts only as long as the underlying infrastructure works, and that really is the critical point. If we’re going to live here, one of the things we have to invest more in is existing infrastructure, tedious as that sounds, and we’re probably not going to be able to deal with continual growth either.

Comment by Heteromeles

I agree it is all about making resources available. When I am despairing, I think of the 1989 collapse of some SF Bay bridge spans and the 25 years it took to do some retrofitting and replacement, as well as the failure to fund a new bridge. I can easily imagine the problems of replacing the Golden Gate bridge, as well as others if the big one hits.

However I am also aware that we are looking through teh lens of late 20th century politics and society. This might be very different in 100 years. There have been some impressive macro engineering in “broke” Europe, so I am hopeful. After all, the US continues to allow infrastructure to decay simply because people generally won’t pay for repairs and the institutions that do repairs are ridiculously expensive. There are times I just want to bring in a Chinese crew to rebuild the rotting freeways in NorCal and show CalTrans how it can be done for a whole less cost. Institutional inertia is a problem, but that isn’t ordained to be the same or worse in the future.
But it is quite possible we will fight over who gets the rewards and never agree on building much. Just look at the mess over the high speed rail project – an ever increasing cost spiral for this White Elephant, with no agreement on the track yet because of entrenched interests. Maybe red tape dooms Western civilization. The reason I am more hopeful is that the UK also fell into this trap which became paralyzing by the 1970’s, yet the nation has done some huge projects that would shame the US in terms of size and complexity. If the UK can do macro-engineering, then surely so can California.

Comment by Alex Tolley

Example of ag tech. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quorn
I was watching a piece about Quorn as a meat substitute. The idea was to reduce costs of meat for the poorer members of society, but it has relevance for CA as we use a lot of water to grow Alfafa grass for feeding cattle. Reducing cattle herds to a small number (up against the Rancher’s Association and Meat packing interests) would reduce the need for water in CA, as well as reduce methane emissions contributing to GW. Quorn factories can be sited in industrial zoned areas to reduce transport costs to market. Processing the raw output offers a lot of scope for companies to make the product taste and feel like meat, as well as an extender.

To me it is changes like this that, in association with other developments, will help see us through the impacts of GW. Different points of view will see this as either a band-aid or a driver of change.

Comment by Alex Tolley

Quorn is a difficult one (disclaimer, I ate some this week), because it’s basically an aspergillus culture, and patented, and more popular in England. The locals have been playing around with spinning pea protein into meat substitutes, but they’re not yet catching on like I’d hope, even if they do taste better than quorn. There’s a pea-based vegan mayonnaise that we’ve switched to, though, as it’s indistinguishable from the real stuff, even when you cook with it, and it’s about the same price.

Bottom line is that, yes, going vegetarian’s generally a good thing, although I’ve never entirely managed it. I’ll still support some cattle (and bison), because there’s a small role for eating grazers that consume things you can’t eat and produce things you can use. But we have too many cattle, and feeding them alfalfa grown in the desert is kinda stoopid.

California’s problem, though, is it’s still exquisitely vulnerable to things like earthquakes and that big storm. If we want this place to survive, we’ve got to get to not just sustainable, but sustainable after earthquakes, sustainable after major floods, and sustainable through multi-decade droughts. You’re right that it’s not impossible, but we are talking about a huge transformation in everything from what people eat to how cities are laid out. At the moment, our political, economic, and physical resources aren’t at all marshaled for undergoing such a transformation, good though it would be to do.That’s why I figured I’d start outlining what a collapse and its aftermath would look like. At the moment, it’s far easier for us to go that way.

Comment by Heteromeles

Quorn. Did you eat the raw output, or one of the meat look-a-likes? I’ve eaten that chicken made with soy that was on the shelves at Whole Foods a few years back. It wasn’t bad, although not good enough for me beyond dishes that used it as a small pieces, like a chunky chicken soup, or sauce.. It was also rather pricey.
I’ve read about the mayonnaise substitute which I gather is excellent.
I’ve not heard about using pea proteins as a meat substitute. Is it similar to soy? I thought peas were rather high in carbohydrate, which is why they are not recommended for diabetics.

You might well be right that the most likely path for CA (and the US as a whole) is to abandon areas that are prone to storms and earthquakes. Relocating Californians en masse is not going to be easy, as well as the impact of loss of agriculture unless these other ag developments take up the load.

However, over two centuries or so, if we do abandon CA, I think it is just as likely that a younger, more aggressive culture will move in, just as we did. If that culture is China, that would give them hegemony over the Pacific and its rim territories. Although China hasn’t built Earthquake resistant buildings yet, I’m sure they will. And if they have to build floating or raised cities, perhaps they will too. This scenario doesn’t have to assume territory annexation, but rather China extending a “helping hand” to aid the ailing USA (if it still exists as a single nation) and moving in with its technology and resources to develop CA.
I find this scenario more likely than a once where a relatively small population eke out a living in a relatively inhospitable land. If nothing else, CA offers a prime location for building massive solar farms to power civilization. replacing panels after a massive storm is going to relatively easy compared to replacing homes.

Comment by Alex Tolley

Hmm, since you’ve been playing with that sea level rise map, you really should look at what it does to China before you plan their takeover of the world. They’re also going to be affected by black flag weather (lethal heat indices), which California is not going to have to deal with. The tl;dr version is that China’s not going to be a world power after a collapse, any more than the US is. If you’re looking for someone to take over California, I’d suggest looking either north or south, not across the ocean.

As for peas, the food techs have been playing with pea protein, which can be made to taste like eggs or (with less fidelity) like chicken. I’m not sure why they prefer it to soy, but that’s where the experiments have been over the last few years. As for Quorn, I like the cubed, chicken-flavored mockumeat the best, but it’s not a perfect substitute. Still, it’s good that whole foods has these products on their shelves.

Comment by Heteromeles

China will certainly be affected, but they are also aggressively building infrastructure (even if that is only to sop up the working population and prevent a revolution). They currently have the resources to attack the problems of sea level rise at least, compared to the current situation of California. If, and its a big if, China continues to develop its economy and technology at a reasonable clip, I would stand by my scenario of them extending their influence across the Pacific. Of course even a century is a long time, but China has a long history and has proven its longevity. The US is but a flash in the pan by comparison.

The Chinese have proven resourceful and it wouldn’t surprise me if they lead in showing how to protect land against sea level rise, or adapt to it. But like Japan, it could all come crashing to a halt, especially if it turns out that growth was largely predicated on US consumption, which will diminish in the wake of GW if your scenario plays out.

Comment by Alex Tolley

I would like to put in a vote for subsistence life styles like hunting/gathering or subsistence farming as one of the lifestyle options in future California. Of all the possible life styles, subsistence living is the most sustainable since it has the lowest energy requirements. Currently, subsistence living isn’t even possible unless you have some cash source to pay rent. Even if you were to raise your own food and owned the land on which you raised it, you would still have to pay rent to the local government in the form of property taxes. If you raise surplus food to sell in order to pay rent, then you are no longer subsistence farming. Subsistence living requires a culture without enough resources to maintain a government able to raise taxes, that is, it would have to be extremely poor by today’s standards.
For people fond of science, I would like to point out that the members of subsistence cultures had to be excellent naturalists, constantly collecting data on weather, plants, animals and minerals. They did science of the observational kind, long on data gathering and preserving, although short on theory. And they needed to have this knowledge to survive.
Any part of a future California that had enough resources to generate a food surplus would probably also be able to sustain a government capable of collecting taxes. So the places most likely to have subsistence cultures would be the most poor such as desert parts of the state. I suppose this is why I am attracted to deserts. They are places that need a net import of energy and other resources from the outside to maintain a high consumption culture. Anything like a financial collapse would disrupt the influx of outside resources into the desert. Currently, desert communities rely heavily on subsidies from outside the area. Absent the influx of outside resource into desert areas, the desert areas would probably be the first areas open to subsistence lifestyles.
Unfortunately, as Bruce Pavlik, author of The California Deserts pointed out, the native tribes of the deserts were the last people who knew how to subsist in the desert entirely on the resources that the desert has to offer. Future subsistence societies would have to reclaim the knowledge that is now mostly lost.

Comment by Wolfgang Brinck

I cannot imagine a more impoverished way of living. Subsistence farming is a life that is idolized by those who have never done it, a throwback to Rousseau’s “noble savage” thinking. Throwing away a modern society that offers more roles for people of all types in favor of one that requires strength and good health for a long as that lasts. Ugh.

Comment by Alex Tolley

Hot Earth Dreams is on my to-read list. I will be consuming it soon. You are right about the Klamath and Coast ranges. My wife used to sell books to school libraries all over Northern Ca. On one trip we drove up 5 to Redding and then west over the coastal ranges in May on our way to Eureka on the coast. Yes, that area is very sparsely populated. Somewhere up there is where Ishi, the last of subsistence life-stylers held out into the 20th century.
Re freedom in poverty, my big epiphany came when we went to Eastern Europe a few years ago for a wedding. The people in the country were relatively poor but also relatively free of government interference, not so much limited by niceties like building permits and such. There was also much more land held in common so that in some small villages a few people were grazing cows on grass growing alongside village streets. Try to imagine such a thing in America.
I suspect that in order to do certain things, one might have to bribe people, but that may still be cheaper than permits. After all, you only bribe one person, not a whole building full of them.

Comment by Wolfgang Brinck

I seem to be confused by which reply button goes with which comment. In any case, this is a reply to Alex. I do garden and even a little bit of digging with a spade is enough to convince me that this is not how I want to make a living. I know that hunting and foraging in the Mojave desert is a romantic notion. I do however like to vacation in the desert, but admittedly, our camping trips are like space voyages, everything we consume, we bring with us from outside.
People did live entirely self-sufficiently in the desert at one time, but I suspect that many of the resources they subsisted on at one time are now gone, specifically game animals and also water. I understand that some of the water in Death Valley for instance comes from outside the area and is also being tapped by Las Vegas. Whether this is fossil water from the last ice age, I don’t know.
I also understand that survival in the desert as a family unit is not a likely prospect. People survived as groups. Hunting larger game usually involved groups of people to drive the game. Collecting food like mesquite beans or acorns was likewise a group activity since harvest time was short and everybody had to pitch in to collect what there was before non-human critters got to it.
So living off the land is not something I am likely to actually do but it still sounds appealing or as you might say, romantic.
Some friends of ours own land in the Capay valley near Vacaville. After spending some time on their land we got a notion to buy some farmland in the valley as well. So one day we drove the length of the valley and realized that there were only about 2000 people living in the whole valley, that there were no decent coffee shops there nor any bookstores. The closest bookstore was probably in Davis, almost an hour drive away. So we realized that living in Capay turned out not to be for us.
What I need, in other words is a place where I can do hunting/gathering that is also within half a day’s walk of a good library. I would say bookstore, but since we wouldn’t have any money, it would have to be a library. Also any place that would allow hunting gathering probably wouldn’t have a library. Still, I like to imagine possibilities.
By the way, I am slowly coming to love LA and its energy, so I am not opposed to something like LA or the Bay Area surviving on some reduced scale. The great thing about a place like the Bay Area is all the smart and innovative people I have access to. I suppose I would have to give that up if I were to pursue hunting and gathering in the Mojave. Call me Tutor Turtle.

Comment by Wolfgang Brinck

Wolfgang, you have read Hot Earth Dreams? This sounds like an argument I make repeatedly in the book.

The big problem with living in the California deserts is that the rich idiots right now are trying to drain all the ground water out of them. That means no springs, and without those springs, the old lifestyle of the many different desert tribes isn’t possible. Worse, until the Glen Canyon Dam breaks, the Colorado will be low to dry, so even Yuman-style farming along the river would be very difficult.

Alex, throughout history, there have always been people who have valued freedom over prosperity (c.f. Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed)> Being useless to those who want to govern you is a classic strategy for staying free of government. Heck, it’s even in the Chuang-Tzu. In this regard, Wolfgang’s absolutely correct about trying to find a place that’s too miserable for government oversight.

However, in California, I’d look to places like the San Gabriels, the Klamath, and parts of the Coast Ranges, all of which will be a bit more livable than the deserts will be, all due to water.

Comment by Heteromeles

When you say desert, I hear an echo of “Cadillac Desert”, that most of SoCal will return to dryness, and even the Central valley will be too water poor for ag. Now I agree if the future is business as usual, assuming water must flow (shades of Dune) in order to prosper. But the5re is no shortage of water, just freshwater. We can recycle water, we can desalinate it, and even though water is very expensive to transport, it can be done, is being done for LA today.
So with intermittent storms, much more recycling and a lot less wastage, I am not so clear that [So] California returns to a desert.
Rising sea level seems much less tractable to me, because it cannot be dome on small scale like ag in greenhouses, but requires expensive macro engineering, which comes up against political priorities, ie those who control power, which is the self same rich bastards draining the aquifers amongst many. who will move to safe enclaves when they must. But I see no objection in principle to building immense seawalls to prevent flooding, especially SF Bay Area, the Sacramento delta and the central Valley. If we can do that, desalination and piped water transport is just small change by comparison. We’re not even talking about Lowellian Martian canal scale either, just local projects.

Abandoning a city like LA, with all its wealth, while low cost (for whom?) is just a counsel of despair and resignation, rather than a positive response. We spend $tn’s to defend ourselves against external political threats, yet apparently next to nothing for such existential threats as sea level rise, and of course, the industries causing it. I’m hopeful we can slow CO2 emissions to a trickle, and even reverse emissions to some extent, but we have built in some warming and sea level rise regardless. I don’t think it will be as bad as you think (or at least I hope not) and rationally it would be cheaper to stop CO2 emissions rather than deal with the consequences. But as an unabashed believer in a technological future with larger global population living better lives, I cannot resign myself to despair and losing it. A triumph of hope over reality? Perhaps. But if that future can be made attractive to the populations, then I think we will get there.

Have you every read Bradbury’s “The Toynbee Convector”, or its tv version? Because that is what I would like us to do, even if we do it by other means.

Comment by Alex Tolley

I don’t see a reply option on Alex’s last post so that is what I am replying to here. First off, I would like to offer a link to Ugo Bardi’s latest post http://cassandralegacy.blogspot.com/2016/02/the-limits-to-growth-was-right-italys.html
The first graph shows the Club of Rome’s predictions for what the future holds for industrial society as originally published in the limits to growth (LTG). The main take-away is that as resources are exhausted, populations and wealth decline in response. My assumption is that with smaller populations and fewer resources there will be less capital to finance large engineering projects even assuming that the political will is there.
As for sea level rise, California unlike the Atlantic coast rises up rapidly from the ocean so sea level rise at least initially endangers only a comparatively small percentage of the built up landscape, Unfortunately, the flatlands/floodlands are where the airports and freeways and industrial and commercial buildings are. In the short term, I agree that we can build levees and such to keep things dry. You might want to invest in dirt-hauling and dredging enterprises. Alameda, the city I live in is about 50 percent landfilled salt marsh. Ten feet of sea level rise would put half the city under water. But levees of that scale can be imagined. These are on the order of levees in the delta where most of the land is about that much below sea level. Still, even levees of that small scale would involve condemning about 5% of the island’s coastline for levee building.
But long term, 60 meters of sea level rise is hard to defend against. Assuming you wanted to build levees that high, the levees would have to go all the way to the Sierra foothills. Besides that, where would the snow-melt from the Sierras go? Would it back up behind the levees? Would you pump the entire Sierra snow melt over to top of the levees? That would be an ongoing cost. So yes, I am skeptical.

Comment by Wolfgang Brinck

One more comment here. A link to Alber Bates’ latest post: http://peaksurfer.blogspot.com/2016/02/runaway-geotherapy-permaculture.html

The new bit of info I got out of this post is that with 1 degree of temperature rise from human greenhouse gas emissions we get a 150 percent match from mother nature in the form of methane emissions from the tundra and the ocean floor. With the 2 degree rise that we’re headed for, we get a 300 percent match from mother nature. So even if we cut our greenhouse gas emissions to 0 right now we would still be stuck with the bonus from mother nature. So according to Albert, what we have to do is plant lots of trees to soak up extra CO2. Or if we humans were to scale back involuntarily, trees would scale up involuntarily as well.

Comment by Wolfgang Brinck

@Wolfgang. The way you describe subsistence living is really a lifestyle choice that is doable when there is a supportive, non-subsistence economy to support it. Imagine going back to a world where subsistence farming is all there is. That means no surpluses, no trades based on surplus, no technology. A California that is so devastated, surrouneded by a similar world, would be a poverty stricken place indeed. Hard scrabble living, no medicines, no steel tools, no electrical goods, no electronics, nothing.

While one may believe that this might free you from government, it doesn’t free you from banditry, which came before government.

That is a future that might be attractive to a tiny minority, mostly males.

Comment by Alex Tolley

Alex, I think you are correct that where subsistence cultures are in contact with the agents of civilization, that they come to depend on trade goods of civilized economies. This is especially true where the civilized cultures are in ascendancy and the subsistence culture sits on top of resources that the civilized culture seeks to exploit.
But when civilized cultures enter decline and their output diminishes, subsistence cultures are more likely to re-establish themselves, primarily because subsistence cultures are the most efficient users of low energy environments.

Comment by Wolfgang Brinck

I agree. The difference is that I would move Heaven and Earth to maintain an advanced civilization whatever the conditions. Just as Britain didn’t become a subsistence farming economy after Rome abandoned the island, I would look to using social organization and technology to adapt as well as possible, even at the cost of “uneconomic” resource allocation, to maintain system that worked for the whole population. It might even be an opportunity to change the system that is currently in thrall to the 0.1%.

Comment by Alex Tolley

Two points:
–Social organization comes at a resource cost. If you don’t have dependable resource surpluses, it’s difficult to support full time organizers or even full time specialists. That’s a major limit on the spread of anything resembling civilization.

The second thing you’re forgetting is that California has whole metropolises full of resources. If this place collapses, it’s not like the ruins are suddenly going to disappear. There’s probably going to be millions of stainless steel knives lying around, rebar to make arrow heads, and so forth, and the challenge is more finding the fuel to reprocess stuff than not finding tools or materials to make tools. Heck, I understand that the ceramic in toilets makes an excellent substitute for flint for arrowheads. Beginning flint knappers are often advised to start with it, since it’s very cheap, and it’s called “johnstone” by aficionados. That’s just one example of many.

Comment by Heteromeles

If cities are underwater, those “resources” aren’t going to be very accessible. I’m sure there will be enough refined metal to be be able to acquire it, but after that, what? I seriously doubt anyone is going to make a phone system, even assuming the poles are still standing and haven’t be used for something else. And who will have time to do anything if they are subsistence farming?

The local inhabitants are going to be vulnerable to any warlord/bandit, and any better economic system in the surrounding area will be able to push out the farmers and colonize.

In a worst case scenario, the N. American continent begins to seem like it was before Columbus, relatively poorly populated, farming and hunting, possibly tribal, but with memories of of a past Golden Age (like the children in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome). But just like pre-Columbian America, it will be vulnerable to colonization from cultures that did adapt to the heat and rising sea level, maintaining their technology base, especially weapons.

I just don’t see a subsistence farming population, scavenging the ruins (Waterworld) still operating 2 centuries from now after California and the possibly the rest of the continent collapses. Heck, even Canada will be able to take over the continent.

Comment by Alex Tolley

Neither Los Angeles nor San Francisco (nor San Jose, or San Diego) will go completely underwater if the ice sheets melt. Sacramento’s the odd one out. The rest have substantial land area above 65 meters, and that’s not going to get inundated by melting ice sheets.

If you haven’t read Hot Earth Dreams, I’d strongly suggest you do so, because you’re making an error that I tried hard to avoid. The future will not be a rerun of the past. Yes, in some ways a post-collapse California will resemble California in 1491. However, there will probably still be guns, there will be a lot of technology lying around, people will likely remember germ theory (if only for why boiling water and such matters), and they may even remember evolution and not bother much with religion. The big things that change are the human population size, the energy and resources available to it, and the climate under which everyone lives. It’s a recognizable world, but it’s not a replay.

Comment by Heteromeles

I can only make short cut analogies from history and what we have as common experience, not the future. While history may not repeat, it can rhyme. But a world with guns won’t also look like some reasonably peaceful subsistence farming either. An economic system won’t be very local, as with guns will come steel ships, and a host of related technology from nations that were not massively damaged by GW. They will enforce their own systems, however much the locals resist.
We are more likely to replay the sorts of history of pre-industrial Europe, or China. The peasants may have been dirt poor, they they were ruled and taxed by those with power. Or maybe it will look more like the 3rd World in the 19th century, with the rich nations colonizing in return for trade goods like medicines and electronics.

Comment by Alex Tolley

Alex, you do realize that basic gun technology is over 1,000 years old, right? I’d strongly suggest looking at Southeast Asia (as in the Hmong, among many others), if you want to see subsistence farmers using guns that they made themselves. You might also want to read Wallace’s Malay Archipelago to see how simple it is to make a gun.

Seriously, though, read Hot Earth Dreams. It’s all in there already.

Comment by Heteromeles

I don’t don’t want this become a Stross-like blog thread on armaments. Gunpowder is a millennium old, but effective firearms that were better than bows and arrows probably didn’t arrive until the repeating revolver in the 19th century, and arguably not until cartridge ammunition was invented. Barrels need to be rifled to ensure accuracy. While you can refill spent cartridges, after a century you will need to fall back to making gunpowder assuming you can find deposits of saltpeter and sulphur, which implies simple guns and trade to me.
Disparate groups with primitive guns are not going to be a match for anyone arriving with functional machine guns.
I’m reminded that someone wrote about how a platoon[?] of modern soldiers could take on and destroy a legion of Roman soldiers.
While hunter gatherers might succeed in a guerrilla war against superior troops, farmers are just going to be burned out if they resist.

None of us know how the future will be. Your bleak vision may be more likely, and you do array enough evidence to support it. I don’t have such a bleak vision, and think that civilization will prove more adaptive. That may well be too optimistic.
I do think that GW will not be uniformly a problem, and as a result, some countries/groups will do well in the changed conditions, and be able to use their new found advantages to project themselves over areas that do badly.
In California’s case, either we adapt, or we will be colonized by another group that has maintained their technology. If Britain managed to control nearly half the globe at its peak, I don’t see why that could not be repeated with a similarly advantaged nation when facing areas that had reverted back to subsistence farming and local “government” to survive after a century.

As for why I believe in human adaptability, well I do think we will be able to colonize other worlds, a technological challenge that is very hard. If we can do that, we can certainly adapt our own Earth against climate change. Will we is another matter, but being old enough to have seen several waves of optimism and despair, I an hopeful that we will be able to organize the resources needed when the conditions to do so are right.

Comment by Alex Tolley

[…] And yes, this is part of that ongoing series.   Here are links for Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5,  Part 6, and Part 7. […]

Pingback by California in the High Altithermal, Part 8: This time it’s different… | Putting the life back in science fiction

[…] of that ongoing series.   Here are links for Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5,  Part 6,  Part 7, and Part […]

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