Monday, September 19, 2005

Community Planning: Our Last Chance?

In a comment to last week’s post, Phil wondered if there were any actions a community could take to prepare for Peak Oil outside of the support or active involvement of municipal authorities. Unfortunately there is no easy answer to this question. Towns and smaller cities situated less populated regions, particularly those with access to basic resources, certainly will have a better chance at succeeding (or at least surviving) in the coming decades. Population and resource availability is only part of the picture, though. How the inhabitants manage and adapt to the changing circumstances, will ultimately determine how well the location will survive the backside of the energy curve.

The local municipalities should ideally be well positioned to handle the coming challenges, as they are on the front lines in terms of land use decision making and service providing. Since they are the closest to the people, they should be able to better understand the situation than any other jurisdiction.

The reality of course, is quite different. Most local officials are so focused on the fine-grain aspects of planning and governance that they will miss the big picture altogether. The daily grind of city management, combined with the belief that things will continue as they always had, has led to a general complacency on matters fundamental to our existence. Politicians have a different set of concerns, namely getting (re)elected. The constant need to seek reaffirmation from the public often leaves the elected official hesitant to breaking bad news until it breaks on its own. Similarly the at-will government managers and directors are hesitant of crossing the opinion or direction of the elected officials. Then add the vested interests (property owners, businesses and interest groups) and you have a recipe for inaction.

So what’s a concerned citizen to do? In a handful of locations, civic-minded individuals have banded together to try and take matters into their own hands. The model that immediately comes to mind is the Willits Localization Committee. There, a diverse group of citizens have worked together as a community to try and take action to head off the ramifications of peaking energy to their town. They held meetings to draw attention to the growing crisis and instead of continuing to just talk about it, they set out on their own to tried to start drafting a plan to actually cope. Towards that end they formed ad-hoc subcommittees, each focused on a particular area, such as food or energy. Just this past week they
released an energy audit of the town’s total energy use and concluded that to make it in a post fossil fuel era, significant amounts of conservation would required in addition to boosting certain renewable energy sources.

Where will the process go from here? And what about other communities who are also preparing such reports? Who knows. In all likelihood one of two scenarios will occur. The first—and more likely—result will be that the local governing body and uninvolved citizens look at the actions as fool hardy, overly panicked or downright crazy and will give the work scant attention until it is way too late to try to prepare. The more optimistic outcome would result in an actual change of course in public and political viewpoints. This would occur as the general public of the town and its leadership came to fully accept the reality of our future and the need for dramatic, if not drastic actions to rectify inevitable problems. As is the case with any other activity that occurs in a state of denial, getting the individual to recognize themselves that there is a problem will prove more successful than authoritatively dictating it from above.

Successful change in other words, is a bottoms-up process. Only through the shifting of public opinion will politicians and civil servants be granted the cover to make those drastic and needed steps. Ideally this would occur through persuasion. In a less optimal scenario however, an economic crisis or bone fide food or energy shortages may also do the trick. Unfortunately, plans hatched during that kind emergency will never accomplish as much as a plan that has access to the full gamut of resources to develop and implement.

We need to get going on this and soon. Time is rapidly running out and any bit of community driven activism would be better than nothing.

If we are lucky, enough smaller communities could grasp this concept and make it through the inevitable crisis. Combine that with some geographical advantages and perhaps a light version of this contraption called civilization could continue. One would hope that anyway.

The alternative would be really dark indeed.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

The Case Against Rebuilding New Orleans

Shortly after Katrina slammed into the US Gulf Coast, the Speaker of the House of Representatives Dennis Hastert went on the record, saying that federal money to restore New Orleans “doesn't make sense to me.” While he later backed off those comments, that question continues to linger out there like the floodwaters that lap at the houses in the Ninth Ward—should we rebuild New Orleans?

From a Geological stand point, the quick answer would have to be no.

New Orleans, as everyone has now learned, is situated on the ground between the Mississippi River and Lake Ponchetraine in a natural delta. Constant deposition of sediment is required to sustain any delta. Without it, erosion from tidal and wave forces will eventually erode away the formation. Hurricanes can accelerate this process dramatically. Worldwide, this erosion can be observed in almost every river delta that has had its flooding action halted by damming of the upstream head waters or channelization via artificial levee construction. In New Orleans, both man made interventions affected the Mississippi River’s flow.

As concerning as that may be, the pumping of groundwater and later, oil and natural gas, further increased the rate of subsidence to where portions of the city are now more than 20 feet below sea level.

With land subsiding in the interior and eroding at the fringes, the conclusion is clear. This area is not inhabitable without significant protection and mitigation, with each year requiring greater measures (higher levees, stronger flood walls and bigger pumps).

As if short term concerns are not troubling enough, over the long haul this area also has to fear delta-switching as well. The Mississippi, like all other major rivers undergo a process whereby the main channel periodically switches location within the delta. This process is well understood by geologists and hydrologists but ignored by most other individuals, due in large part to their infrequent occurrence. Delta switching can occur every few hundred years, when the main tributary becomes so excessively long that river water has to travel an ever longer distance to reach the sea. A longer length means the main channel flow slows compared to the other branches. Eventually one of those branches “captures” the flow of the original main channel and becomes the new main channel, due to its shorter distance and faster flow.

As luck would have it, the Mississippi is due for such a switch. In fact it is well over due. A couple hundred miles upstream from the mouth of the Mississippi River, trouble of another sort is brewing. The Army Corps of Engineers is locked in an epic battle to prevent the Old/Atchafalaya River system from capturing the river. While the story of how this happened is thoroughly entertaining and can be read
here or here, the gist of the matter is that in the 1950’s the Corps became aware that ever-increasing percentages of Mississippi water was flowing into the Atchafalaya River. The problem was so severe that it would have been a matter of few years to a decade or so before the Atchafalaya would have irrevocably captured the Mississippi. To stop this, the Army Corps constructed a massive control structure that prevents the Red and Old Rivers from taking more than 30% of the Mississippi waters. So far that has worked, despite a few close calls during major river floods.

To fail would doom New Orleans (if it had not already been destroyed) and Baton Rouge to backwater status. The now bypassed Mississippi would clog with sediment and in its lower reaches become brackish. Industries and cities dependent on its fresh water would die and shipping would only be possible courtesy of yearly dredging. The distinctive “tip” of Louisiana, deprived of sediment would be lost to the Gulf of Mexico. Meanwhile, Morgan City on the Atchafalaya would need serious flood protection to withstand the “responsibility” of becoming the main river channel.

Geologically, the cards are stacked against New Orleans. Given the passage of time, the area known as New Orleans (and Baton Rouge) would ordinarily be relegated to the annals of history, destined to become the next lost city, overrun by wild life and studied by future civilizations (if there are to be any). It is only through the application of massive amounts of energy, is nature held at bay. But nature can only be delayed, not denied. For without constant supervision, work and physical investment, the forces of nature will triumph in the end. In fact they are already beginning overwhelm our best laid plans.

As usual, it all boils down to energy.

We know what geological forces we face in the delta and what measures we have to take to over come them. The question is, will we have the energy to continue to do so? With the recent destruction of New Orleans, will we also have enough energy (and other resources) to rebuild what was lost while protecting from future calamity?

Again the answer would have to be no.

Our global energy supplies are stretched thinner than ever, even before Hurricane Katrina struck. As we pass through the point of Peak Oil in the next few years, our energy situation will become evermore serious and dire. This will affect the pace of any rebuilding (if it does indeed commence soon) by driving up the cost of fuel and construction materials so much so that people cannot afford to rebuild. Eventually it will rob construction firms from most forms of mechanized activities unless governmental priorities resulted in direct access to fuels and the necessary petroleum-based chemical feed stocks.

Secondly, the spiraling cost of oil and other forms of energy would suck the economic life out of the country, depriving the government of the will or the means to pay for an increasingly costly reconstruction effort. Levee rebuilding may become a casualty to an energy driven economic depression. First rate ideas may yield to third rate solutions that prove to be more cost effective than technically effective. Perhaps if we were further away from peak oil, more could be accomplished.

Finally, if an economic crash leads to warfare or dramatic drops in available fossil fuel stocks that affect the food production and distribution networks, basic human survival would be placed at risk. Hungry people don’t build levees. Famished families do not build houses. While not in the immediate cards for the human experiment, it will eventually occur if we fail to develop a sustainable path for civilization to take. There simply is no way around that fact.

Geological forces cannot be stopped. The laws of thermodynamics cannot be broken. Humans cannot exceed their global carrying capacity. These is simply no room for argument on these points

The complete rebuilding of New Orleans flies in the face of all of these. Unless we can continue to forever increase our global energy supply to overcome all of our past “protective” measures to keep the waters at bay as well as prevent all of those future forces (also including rising sea levels) from impacting the city, we are doomed to fail. Since never-ending growth is out of the question, at some point we will face a point of reckoning, a time when all of our past actions come to the forefront and haunt us.

Nothing lasts for ever and everything on this planet from amoebas to zebras will succumb in the end. So too will everything that we humans create and build. Sooner or later that means whole settlements will fail and be destroyed. It has happened time and time again throughout history, for a variety of reasons. The sooner that we all understand this, the better we are for it.

Dennis Hastert was right to question the future of New Orleans. It was just for the wrong reasons. Better to conserve what little resources we have left to improve or preserve what still works elsewhere. As hard as it is to believe, New Orleans’ time has come and gone.

Morgan City anyone?
Turns out Joel Garreau, the author of Edge City and the Nine Nations of North America has written on this very subject. More info than my post but then again, his day job is writing...
Check it out here:

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