Putting the life back in science fiction

Labor Day Silliness: America as Rome, part duh

While I don’t want to kill the previous conversation, I’d like to post a rather silly question, if you’ve got some down time this weekend and want to swat at it.  The idea is based on the USA kind of following in the caligulae of the Roman Empire as it crashed.  The question is, when Washington DC floods due to sea level rise, what city becomes the new capital, the American Constantinople?

As I said, it’s a silly question, predicated on the idea that big empires recapitulate their histories somehow.  This is an idea to play with over the recreational beverages of your choice, this holiday weekend.

Here’s what I’ll suggest happens.  The heartland of the US is east of the Mississippi, and the political power and population of the western US has been artificially amped basically by crude terraforming, through massive dams, canals, and a plentiful supply of fossil fuel energy.  My crude guess is that, absent a total switch to sustainable electricity (and possibly with it), over the next century, the population of the western US will shrink drastically.  The cause will be lack of fresh water, increased heat, increased soil salinity making farming untenable, and quite possibly, lack of energy to deal with the problems.

This is old territory for this blog, which is why I’m not going into much detail.  The end result will be that the remaining western population centers–which won’t be all that big–will be in northern California and the western Pacific Northwest.  The rest of the West will be some flavor of desert, except possibly for the Salt Lake area (if the Mormons can turn their cities back into farms and keep their soils from getting too salty).

My guess is that most of the people will migrate back east.  I’d also guess that, like the Roman empire, American authority will shrink back across the Mississippi, especially as rising seas devastate the great cities of the eastern seaboard.  America might endure for centuries of climate change, but its territory would be some fragment of what it had in the early 19th Century.

If we follow the Roman example, probably our weakened, corrupted democracy will be taken over by a series of strongmen (hopefully more competent than Great Orange #2). One of these strongmen–call him Constantine–will abandon the Washington area entirely to build his self-named capitol somewhere else.

The question is, where would that new Constantinople be?  It could be Philadelphia, or some place along the East coast but above the rising waves.  Or it could be somewhere else.  Perhaps the US would invade Quebec and seize a town along the Saint Lawrence seaway, possibly Quebec city itself.  Quelle horreur!   But that would give them access to both the Great Lakes and the Atlantic, as well as some buffer against rising seas.   Possibly they’d go straight to the Great Lakes and ignore the perils of the Atlantic altogether.  In this case, anywhere from Toledo to Detroit to Green Bay to Duluth might serve.

Why shouldn’t neo-Constantine choose Cleveland or Chicago?  Well, paleo-Constantine built Constantinople out of a little fishing village.  His problem was that Rome had gotten too corrupt, so rather than move Rome, he built his new capitol from scratch, and left the old one to finish corrupting itself (which it did).  If we’re being post-Romans instead of Americans, it might make sense for President-for-life Generalissimo Constantine to pick as his new capitol a small town that would be strategically important with a changed climate, decreasing population, rising sea level (you can see sea level changes at this website, among others), and trade running North-South than East-West or between continents.

Where do you think a new capitol might go, in a hundred years or so?  There’s no right answer.  After all, this is a weekend thought experiment.  Would it make more sense to pick a new US capitol on the Mississippi?  Well away from water?  What would happen to the Pacific Northwest–would it be an outpost of America on the Pacific, or a new country, cut off by the failed desert states and dying cities of the American West?   Have fun and make some suggestions.  And either way, have a happy Labor Day.


20 Comments so far
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If your USian Constantine has any brains,s/he would move the Capitol to North Dakota. ND has a very small mostly ‘white’ population that could be easily displaced or overwhelmed and it’s sitting on key energy natural resources. Plus it has both thriving agricultural and e-tech industries (AMZN, MSFT). The downside is that its summers and winters tend toward the extreme.

Comment by SFreader

maybe not move at all. I think it all depends whether a sea-level rise barrier is cheaper or more desirable than a move. Cities will want to remain near shorelines for trade, so an inland location away from water won’t make much sense. A ready fresh water supply will be necessary, suggesting that DC will remain a decent location.

If technology improves, an A/C dome over the capital and larger suburbs might well make the city more livable, especially in summer (or develop arcologies to envelop the city).

Bottom line, we have far more options than did Ancient Rome. Mind you, we may see a new capital for “Jesus Land” if the US breaks up.

Comment by alexandertolley

I think heroic efforts will be made to keep D.C. above water, but a move is likely if the capitol is destroyed in a war gone bad, which could happen if we elect someone who didn’t notice that our armed forces no longer have the industrial depth behind them that they had fifty years ago. In that case, the question becomes “What’s left?”.

Comment by Tim H.

Denver. In mountains, with a long overland journey to get there from wherever an enemy might land. Easily defended (mountains.) Cool (mountains.) Decent water supply, particularly if The Ruler intercepts a river or two that used to feed say… Colorado Springs. Probably a pretty good climate even after climate change. Close to the continental divide, which might give The Ruler some water-routing power. Near the Air Force Academy and Cheyenne mountain. Not hard to raise cattle nearby in case food becomes an issue and not far from Kansas, where more food might be raised if the temperature cooperates.

Comment by Troutwaxer

If most manufacturing is still located along coasts (b/c quicker access to shipping) then most manufacturing will be lost with sea-level rise. This makes being located along the new coast kinda pointless.

Under-the-dome-liveability … seems that more and more literature is pointing to biodiversity is a must-have not just a nice-to-have. Once you’ve domed off a large chunk of land, there may be a greater risk of collapse of whatever had been living there.

Comment by SFreader

“If most manufacturing is still located along coasts (b/c quicker access to shipping) then most manufacturing will be lost with sea-level rise. “

I don’t see that as inevitable. It will depend on the economics of dike construction, not to mention the politics. Perhaps the best examples of modern city protection are London’s Thames barrier to stop North Sea storm surges, and Venice’s various approaches to prop up buildings slowly sinking into its lagoon and the flood control scheme for the lagoon itself. Venice is getting rapid sea level rise by sinking, and the fights over the costs and methods of preservation reflect those that will happen in the US. In Venice’ case, the city is a major cultural artifact that we don’t want to lose, whilst we don’t really have the same situation in the US. But you can bet we will want to preserve Cape Canaveral and Disney will no doubt lobby hard to have DisnetyWorld protected at taxpayer expense.

Under-the-dome-liveability … seems that more and more literature is pointing to biodiversity is a must-have not just a nice-to-have.

I don’t see domes as covering a large amount of teh landscape. The US has a lot of open space compared to Europe. So I expect domes, bermed houses and even underground living to become more popular. I’m working on covering the outside walls of my house with climbing plants to shade the walls, as temperature measurements show the reduced temperatures and heat load when the walls are in the shade. (We’ll see what the neighbors have to say about this .) Malcolm Wells was a strong proponent of underground architecture back in te 1970’s, primarily for energy conservation and landscape remediation. His ideas never caught on other than sporadically. Maybe climate change will change more minds. Personally, I think arcologies are the way to go in cities as they are basic extrapolations of existing architectural methods. Gerry O’Neill of space colony fame was a proponent (cf “2081: A Hopeful View of the Human Future”.)

Comment by alexandertolley

I would like to nominate Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin just for the heck of it. It’s located on the Door peninsula with water on both sides, making for slightly warmer winters and cooler summers.
Some other small towns between Chicago and Detroit might be more accessible but even there, temperatures in the summer become unreasonable.
Should the US decide to annex Ontario or Quebec, some other town on the north shore of one of the great lakes or along the St. Lawrence seaway might become contenders.
Since the emperor gets to decide the location of the new capitol, personal favorites, perhaps with pleasant childhood memories attached could be chosen for strictly sentimental reasons.

Comment by Wolfgang Brinck

Interesting comments. As for keeping the Capitol in DC as the Chesapeake Bay rises, that calls for Netherlands style dikes, and probably the death of Chesapeake Bay as an ecosystem. That’s dikes with hurricanes, something the Dutch don’t really deal with yet.

North Dakota has historically had trouble keeping it’s population density above the level enjoyed by the Plains Indians when they hunted bison. There are certainly areas that can support towns, but unless it gets lucky with the climate lottery, it’s not clear that it will be able to support a big city for more than a few generations at best. Worse, all the fracking is destroying both its groundwater and some decent farmland, both through chemical contamination.

As for relocating the Capitol west of the Mississippi, well, there’s a reason they called it the Great American Desert in the 19th Century. All of our dams and water systems added a temporarily irrigated farming area perhaps the size of West Virginia n the West. East of the Mississippi, water does this miraculous thing and actually falls from the sky.

And diverting rivers to build cities is so very 20th Century.

That’s the underlying question: in Constantine’s time, the most active, profitable parts of the Roman empire were in the east, and that’s one reason why he built up a small fishing town to become Constantinople. Rome had so many ingrained problems that, rather than reform it, he wanted to leave it behind and start over.

For someone looking at a future US, we’re looking at the same two questions: is Washington DC so corrupt that it’s better to move the Capitol than to reform it, and if so, where will the new political center in a climate-changed US be?

Comment by Heteromeles

It’d be interesting to know which US cities/regions are now most livable climate-wise. If such data showed ND as having the most livable climate, that may persuade some to stop/ease back on the fracking and sell real estate instead. Culturally very feasible because it’s still capitalism without any tree-hugging: only the product being sold will have been changed.

Comment by SFreader

As for keeping the Capitol in DC as the Chesapeake Bay rises, that calls for Netherlands style dikes, and probably the death of Chesapeake Bay as an ecosystem. “

Yes, something will have to give. As you well know, most people in California “prefer people over fishes” regarding water use. In DC, it will be protecting homes and businesses with legislators able to vote the funding for that. I doubt the ecosystem will get much look in when the chips are down. It’s a sad reflection of how our culture manages its economy, but it may be an object lesson for a future culture that replaces ours.

Comment by alexandertolley

Not entirely related, but I gave my son my copy of Hot Earth Dreams. He will be working on a new installment of a popular post-apocalyptic video game that will be based roughly 100 years in the future. It will be interesting to see what they come up with.
Interestingly, while the main stream media put out a reality feed that is a mix of progress and terror, the entertainment industry seems to be more in line with people’s subconscious concern about civilization’s collapse. They’re still buying high tech gadgets, but they’re using them to visualize a dystopian future.

Comment by Wolfgang Brinck

Thanks Wolfgang! I hope it’s useful to him.

Comment by Heteromeles

Just curious, what game is your son working on? I would like to take note of it if I don’t already know the series.

Comment by Whachamacallit

According to the internet, the studio is not confirming or denying anything, but time will tell. I’m being evasive because I don’t know if the information is sensitive to the studio. But some creative googling will probably get you the info you’re looking for.

Comment by Wolfgang Brinck

Ahh, I see what it likely is now. That is quite surprising, I must say. Didn’t expect there to be a sequel for that game, but I’m already eager to play it!

Comment by Whachamacallit

If you guessed that the studio is named after a type of pet then you’re on the right track.

Comment by Wolfgang Brinck

So in respects with your American Rome, I think I agree that the upper Great Lakes will probably be the place where Constantine Mk. 2 would move the capital, or alternatively somewhere in the upper Mississippi basin. Either location still has connections to the ocean via rivers and canals, but are safe from actual sea level rise and the most powerful versions of storms. I’m honestly doubt that DC would be kept though, since not only is there some nasty sea level rise, but also those hurricanes that you mentioned are likely to get far more powerful.

Even in your “not quite BAU” scenario, by 150 years there would be hurricanes that would have EF-5 tornado-force winds. Such a powerful tornado is a tragedy, but a hurricane with such wind speeds is probably closer to a city killer. Also did you hear about this new tidbit? The number of Cat 4 and 5 hurricanes in East and Southeast Asia have doubled in the past ~35 years: https://robertscribbler.com/2016/09/06/new-study-climate-change-has-doubled-the-number-of-category-4-and-5-storms-striking-east-and-southeast-asia/

Comment by Whachamacallit

I did see it. That’s a general prediction from climate change, about having more heat caught in the atmospheric system and that energy doing stuff spinning up big storms dissipate itself.

Comment by Heteromeles

Agreed, on a pragmatic planning basis I would be thinking upper Great Lakes or Mississippi River location like Minneapolis/st.paul. But it also seems that when emperors make decisions, not all the factors are based on practical concerns but might be more related to what is good for the emperor’s continuing reign.

Comment by Wolfgang Brinck

Hi, there! I’m new to your site but agree that America is following the path of Rome. I got there through Oswald Spengler via John Reilly’s blog archived here: http://www.benespen.com/?tag=The+Long+View

In his “Spengler’s Future” timeline, it’s pretty convincing it’ll encompass the world, or at least Europe, by the 22nd Century. I’ve pegged Saint Petersburg, Russia as our Constantinople to complete their rising culture’s ‘psuedomorphosis.’

Comment by kuzefra (@kuzefra)

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