Putting the life back in science fiction


California in the High Altithermal Part 9: Death Valley Dreams

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been reading articles (such as this one) about how anomalously warm Alaska and other parts of the Arctic were this winter.  Someone even said that if California had warmed half as much as the Arctic did, we’d be in trouble.

Well, we did warm about half as much.  By my calculations, San Diego was 9°F/5°C warmer than average for the month of February.  This turned what is normally our wettest month into a dry month, with tumbleweeds sprouting in February instead of June, and flowers blooming months early.  The heat squelched our El Niño rains, with persistent high pressure forcing the rains north to flood northern California and Oregon.  Since I’m not a climatologist, I can’t say authoritatively that this is the new normal, but given the fossil record of rain forests in Oregon and the models of a hot dry So Cal, I’ll go out on a little bitty limb and say it sure could be.  But I’m not sure whether we know that we’re in trouble yet.

Still, some rain did get through, so my wife and I took a three day weekend to go up to Death Valley and see the tail end of the “superbloom,” and all I got was this lousy blog idea.  Actually, I had fun and got a lot of cool pictures of individual flowers and landscapes as well, but the massive fields of flowers have faded away.

Continue reading



California in the High Altithermal, Part 8: This time it’s different…

This idea seems to be sprouting like a weed in some odd places, including (reportedly) with a group of professors at UC Davis.  The general idea, as I’m hearing it second and third-hand, is a conglomeration of “this time it’s different,” “weeds are the new natives, you stupid nativists,” and “It’s now the Anthropocene, so the old rules are out the window.”

Continue reading



The Future: resilient, invisible, and already here

“It is only too obvious that forcible extraction of agricultural products from the grower by those who produce none of their own foments conflict. Free, self-reliant families with modest needs and no natural incentive to increase food production to feed outsiders stand in the way of those seeking power. It is thus not surprising that Russia’s history from the advent of princes and Christianity to the present day has been that of passive and active resistance to the oppressors, endless uprisings, rebellions, peasant wars and brutal executions, and repressions of those refusing to recognize the “divine authority” of rulers (be it “princes” or “commissars”) or the inviolability of the official ideology (be it “Christian” or “communist”).

Russia’s story is by no means unique, but rather falls into the global pattern, since measures required for gaining control over populations that were previously independent and self-sufficient are similar throughout history and throughout the world.” (Leonid Sharashkin, The Socioeconomic and Cultural Significance of Food Gardening in the Vladimir Region of Russia.  PDF Link)

It’s fun what you can say in PhD theses, isn’t it?  That’s where the above came from.   I certainly explored the intertwined themes of appropriation, violence, resistance, and agriculture in Hot Earth Dreams, as many of you undoubtedly remember.  What we don’t often think about is how often resistance literally crops up, well, everywhere, even in authoritarian empires like China and Russia/USSR.  Or here, for that matter.  It’s about gardens, about how people feed themselves and what they do with surpluses. Continue reading



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?

Continue reading



California in the High Altithermal, Part 6: Embracing the Suck

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

One of the challenges with this scenario is that it starts 100 years from now, since it follows my (probably overly simplistic) model from Hot Earth Dreams. This is a problem, because it would be easier if I did the simple doomy-gloomy thing and predicted that we’re going to collapse in, oh, about 20 years or so, so the future has a lot of stuff we’d recognize. If we’re talking about a collapse 50-100 years out, then we’re basically talking the collapse of a civilization that tried for sustainability and ultimately failed over the course of decades.   This means, in turn, that there’s a potentially large amount of sustainable, appropriate technology that could be (hopefully will be) invented between now and then, stuff which will make our descendants’ lives better even if things go permanently pear-shaped. Here I’m not going to speculate on possible technology (that’s what the comments are for, Alex), but hopefully you’ll see why some inventions still matter more than others.

Instead I’m assuming that, during the 21st Century, some combination of  a titanic storm (the ARkStorm, for “Atmospheric River, 1000-year Storm”) and the Big One earthquake, possibly with a side order of pandemic, famine, and non-nuclear war, combine to trash California over the 21st Century, and that some large fraction of California’s population loss is due to emigration to Oregon or Mexico, not in-state excess mortality (aside to Oregon: it’s not too early to start building that border fence…)

Here I’m going to talk a little about human life during the early part of the High Altithermal.

Continue reading



California in the High Altithermal, Part 5: A Wedge of Swans

This is part of an ongoing series.  Here are the links for Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

[Note: additional material was added on Feb 15]

In this entry I’m going to be a real brat and not talk about the logical next section: California’s posturban cultures.  The only excuse I’ll plead is that I’m reading up a bit on Sonoran desert agriculture (Tohono O’odham papers, Gary Nabhan, and so forth), to at least raise my ignorance to a higher level. Since I just found a really cool book I want to delve into, that post is going up probably in a week or so.

What I’m presenting here is what I originally intended to finish the series with, a consideration of the white, gray, and black swans that will affect California’s history going forward.   If you’ve read Hot Earth Dreams, you already know that I’m talking about Taleb’s black swan theory, with white, gray, and black referring to major, disruptive events that range from predictable in timing and scope (white) to totally unpredictable (black), with gray in between.  What disasters await Californians?

Continue reading



California in the High Altithermal, Part 4: Human Landscapes

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

I didn’t get to livestyles of posturban peoples this time.  That’s the next piece.  Indian California was a complex place, with hundreds of peoples and languages and a wide variety of life ways.  Modern California’s a massively complicated place, but it’s complicated in very different ways than Indian California was, due its central position in the modern global economy.  The High Altithermal will be complicated as well, but in very in different ways than it is now.  Here I’m going to write about how California’s jumble of environments shape where (and to some extent how) people live.

Continue reading



California in the High Altithermal, Part 3: natural Landscapes

Part 1 of this series can be found here.  Part 2 can be found here.

For Part 3, I want to start with two numbers: 2,644,443 and 200,000-300,000.  The first is what I predict, based on the formula in Hot Earth Dreams, would be California state population in 2100 CE, and I’ll get to how I calculated that in a second.  The second is the estimate of how many Indians lived in California before European contact.  The first I calculated by finding out California’s current population (rounded up to 39,000,000), it’s current annual growth rate (0.9%), and plugged the numbers into a compound interest equation and ran it out to 2050 (52,888,867.  Please check my math).  Then I applied the 95% dieoff from civilization collapsing between 2050 and 2100, and came up with a population of 2,644,443.  The thing to notice is that this number is still ten times higher than what the state supported before Europeans came along.  It’s also almost twice as high as the state population in 1900 (1,485,053), which suggests to me, sadly, that the scenario of a 95% population crash is probably too optimistic for California.

Continue reading



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.

Continue reading



California in the High Altithermal, Part 1: The physical stuff

One of the things that bugs me is that, about half the time when I dawdle on writing something, new facts emerge that change everything. That’s happened here a bit.

This is part one of a series of blog posts about California in the High Altithermal, and here I’m focusing on the environment. What I’m doing is taking the ideas from Hot Earth Dreams and working to show what might happen in one specific spot, in this case, the area currently defined as the state of California, over a specific time period, in this case, the High Altithermal.

My goal is to show how climate change happens over time, because different things happen on different scales, and that makes the future a lot messier. It’s not meant to scare people, but rather to give us a way to intellectually examine this model of the future, and figure out how people and other organisms will adapt.

If you’ve already read the book, you know the basic global scenario for the High Altithermal, which will run from 2100 CE (when our greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels stop) to 3600 CE (when the East Antarctic ice sheet finishes melting, and sea level tops out at 65 meters above the current level). These dates aren’t hard: we don’t know when we’ll finish binging on fossil fuels, what Arctic methane is going to do, or whether or even if the entire East Antarctic ice sheet will melt. But that’s the scenario I’m using here. During the first 200 years of the High Altithermal, global average temperatures climb from +3oC (we’re currently at +1oC) to +8oC, and the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets melt, raising sea levels by about 16 meters over those 200 years. From 2300 CE on, global average temperatures stabilize, and then start to fall 1-2oC over the next 1,300 years, while the sea continues to rise as the East Antarctic ice sheet melts away.

In this post, I’ll cover sea level rise, climate, and rivers and dams. This is necessary background, and I’m breaking it up into multiple posts so you don’t have to read a 7,000 word essay.

Continue reading