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Friday, May 1

The difference between dystopia and human-sized societies

Photo:  Gena Gammie

I knew before I launched the "Water Crisis Gordian Knot" series that there was a crisis and that it had many interwoven parts, but it wasn't until I plunged into the specifics that I realized the extent of either.  At one point in my research I blurted in dawning horror, "Oh God. They left water out of everything."

"Everything" being clean energy, much of which requires vast amounts of increasingly scarce freshwater; development projects for entire regions of the world; vast modernization and industrialization schemes;  globalized manufacturing and agricultural exports; democratization; political philosophies; geopolitical strategies; and government economic and social polices.

All of it, the entire edifice of the modern era, did not reflect thinking about water usage in an age of megapopulations.

--Pundita, Swept Away, August 2014

In Swept AwayI noted that when it came to the water crisis we were past the time for recriminations, so my comments in this post shouldn't be taken as such. I'm just noting a huge problem, one that every American police force in Hurricane Alley has faced:  If you keep issuing dire warnings but the Big One doesn't materialize, people will stop evacuating ahead of a hurricane that looks serious to forecasters.

Human nature tends to observe the Three Time rule: the first two warnings are taken seriously; the third is perceived as crying "Wolf!"

The same situation now attaches to the radical shift underway in government perceptions of the most immediate threat to humanity. First we were told we were going to choke to death on pollution. Then the end of the world was nigh because we were burning too much fossil fuels.  Now we're all gonna die of thirst.

I never bought the first two warnings of imminent doom. And last year, near the start of my steep learning curve about water issues, while I realized that water shortages were serious I thought they were nothing human ingenuity couldn't deal with -- although I did concede that the situation was made of many knotted parts. Yet it seemed to me that Alexander's sword in this case was vastly improved data collection.  California's government had only the vaguest idea of how much water was being used in the state, a situation in effect across most of the world.

But even as I was making those observations Big Data collection efforts and analysis were rolling in -- analysis based on data from satellites that scientists had learned to use to look at threads in the water crisis Gordian knot.

Taken together the story the data told was beginning to look like the sum of all fears.

Yet not only are we not ready for the wolf's long-delayed appearance, many people will be disinclined to believe governments that tell them, 'To save the globe you must reduce your water footprint.'

The issue has gotten tied up with Big Government, which unfailingly takes a cookie-cutter approach to problem solving. It's no longer X regions that are water stressed; now the entire globe is facing disaster and thus, only global solutions will do -- the same solutions, no matter how different the conditions in each region.  That last is not quite here, not in the specifics, but it's on its way, as sure as, uh, drought.

However, we may be saved from the Totalitarian Water Management Regime by the simple fact that this crisis was upon us before we realized it. There was no long lead time because the crisis crept up on our blind side; it was masked by global warming warnings.

And it so happens that humanity's finest hours are always in the midst of unexpected crisis. The experience of Californians is an example.  While the state government has spun its wheels in response to the drought, a riot of creatitivity has broken out among the state's residents. Ad hoc approaches to battling water shortages now abound.

One of Samuel Sandoval's tricks is to place a plastic bucket in the shower during the few seconds the water is reaching the right temperature, before he gets under the spray.  He uses the water he collects this way on plants.  If every shower taker in California did that, right there is a pretty big ocean of water.

Long-time observers of the state might say Californians can't change, and that anywhere you find big money and big opportunity you'll find the same attraction for big, showy projects.  Yet Californians are already changing in the face of drought adversity, even though they're having to tear down and rebuild their unique culture -- even their concept of beauty.  Where before the ideal landscape was a cross between English countryside and Tahiti, now fauna and flora native to the desert are perceived as true beauty by many Californians.

Study this April 4 New York Times report California Drought Tests History of Endless Growth to see the beginnings of a remarkable revolution in thinking.

Humanity's middle name is adapt.  It's just that Californians, along with the rest of us, hadn't realized how short time might be.  Estimating the length of timelines has never been the human race's strong suit, I suppose because the now captures so much of our attention.  

I haven't asked Charlotte's bookie for odds on whether we'll adapt fast enough in this case.  The situation is that our entire modern civilization rose up with little thought to the possibility that the water spigot could suddenly shut off everywhere.  Only in the long run might that happen and we'd figure out something by then.

Meanwhile, over in Peru, a looming water crisis in Lima prompted officials there to listen to Andean community leaders. They've been saying for the longest time that ancient, pre-Incan water canals, long ago fallen into disuse, could be used after undergoing repairs, "to collect excess river water in the wet season so it can recharge pools and groundwater supplies for use in the dry season."

The quote is from the caption to the above photograph, which accompanies Monga Bay's report on the Peruvian canals. If the discussion seems vaguely familiar -- remember the New York Times reader who pointed out in exasperation that Sao Paulo and several other major Latin American cities, including Lima, were foolishly situated away from a reliable river source?  

Maybe not foolish if one goes back far enough time.  

 Meanwhile, the European Union Parliament has suddenly grown a brain. Monga Bay reports:
EU votes to scale back on biofuels linked to deforestation
by Jeremy Hance
April 28, 2015
The European Parliament voted overwhelmingly today on a new cap on biofuels derived from edible crops, which critics say not only compete with feeding a growing global population but also contribute to deforestation and release unacceptably high levels of greenhouse gas emissions. The new legislation sets the cap on edible food crop biofuels—such as palm oil, corn, rapeseed, and soy—at seven percent. Currently, the EU set a 10 percent target for transport fuels will be so-called “renewable “by 2020.

"Let no one be in doubt, the biofuels bubble has burst," said Robbie Blake, a campaigner from the Friends of the Earth Europe. "The EU's long-awaited move to put the brakes on biofuels is a clear signal to the rest of the world that this is a false solution to the climate crisis. This must spark the end of burning food for fuel."

A decade ago biofuels were touted as one among many solutions to climate change. However, research since then has increasingly argued that many biofuels may actually emit more greenhouse gases than fossil fuels due to deforestation and land use change.[...]
It's not all good news. From the rest of the report critics are saying the EU cap is not enough. And the decision was based on greenhouse gases, not the link between deforestation and lowered rainfall patterns.  But given the powerful government-linked vested interests in biofuels, the overwhelming vote signaled a revolution in thinking. 

Many such revolutions are happening at this time even though they haven't filtered into the mainstream media; Big Data is driving them as much as conditions on the ground.  The meta-message from the data is that humanity is pushing the outer limits of growth.  Yet we haven't so much reached the limit as the limit on how we grow.  Just as Californians are developing a different standard of scenic beauty, so we must revise what unwittingly became the standard of successful growth; huge, government-funded development projects and mega-cities in which few people outside government play a part in conceiving.

A great illustration of the antidote is found in an April 30 report for the Guardian filed by Jason Burke from Bunkot, Nepal:
In Bunkot, a remote cluster of villages clinging to high ridges at 7,000ft in the Himalayan foothills, aid has finally begun to arrive. Fewer than 15 miles from the epicentre of Saturday’s quake, lashed overnight by heavy rain and hit by a series of powerful aftershocks, the area is one of the worst affected in Nepal.
And yet, on Thursday night, at least a few hundred homeless villagers prepared to sleep in marginally better conditions, free from hunger for a few hours. As NGOs and the Nepali government struggle with the massive logistical difficulties of bringing in and distributing the huge quantities of material needed for the hundred thousand people thought to be homeless in the area around Bunkot, informal local initiatives are getting some help through.
Early on Thursday morning, pickup trucks carrying bedding, snacks and other vital materials arrived in Bunkot, sent by a restaurant in the Chitwan national park, about 50 miles away. The vehicles managed to get through before rain cut the mud track to the nearest metalled road leading to Gorkha Bazaar, the district centre.
“There is a very important need. These people just need to survive. We can’t wait for the government. We decided to do it ourselves,” said Naresh Giri, manager of the KC Restaurant and Bar.  ...
Let's hear it for the KC Restaurant and Bar.

People from a community go to Paul Glover and complain, for example, that the government isn't providing enough medical care. And Glover says, 'Why not set up your own medical clinic?'

It's paperwork, investment of time, and pooling of community money but most of all it takes knowing how to do it. So Glover finds out how to do it then says to the people, 'Here's how it's done. '

Oh. Okay. So let's start our own medical clinic.

Now that's growth, isn't it?  Not a $100 million hospital research wing, but for dealing with routine medical conditions in the community, it gets the job done.

The difference between dystopia and a humane future is knowing how to make human-sized societies happen. It's not all that hard to find out.


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