The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

The Chinese and European Droughts & What They Mean For the Future

No doubt you’ve seen pictures like the one below from both China and Europe:

Famously, in European rivers “hunger stones” set in the past to indicate when water was so low it indicated an incoming famine, have been uncovered.

Chinese officials are scrambling to find enough water for irrigation. Meanwhile the wheat crop in India was devastated by a heat wave at planting time.

Will there be famine in Europe or China? I doubt it. What will happen instead is famine in the global “south”, because European countries and China can afford to buy grain. Since grain started flowing out of Ukraine, to the best of my knowledge not one shipment went to the “south”.

This doesn’t mean there won’t be suffering in China and especially parts of Europe. Though prices have dropped recently, I expect prices will again rise, and combined with rising fuel prices, winter will be harsh for many (those without a lot of money, obviously. The rich will be fine and still dine on caviar in warm rooms beneath brilliantly lit chandeliers.) I imagine that if Nord Stream 1 isn’t shut off by then, it will have further maintenance issues in the winter.

But what’s interesting about these droughts is that:

1) they weren’t predicted to happen so soon;

2) the knock on effects like the devastation of hydropower in China. Which, ironically, means they will be scrambling to burn more hydrocarbons, especially coal.

What is underestimated when people talk about climate change and environmental collapse is that it makes events far more unpredictable. Once in a thousand year events, under the previous extremely stable climate system start happening often. Weather doesn’t act according to previous patterns, and since there is more energy (heat) available, it is stronger. There’ll be more rain, for example, but you may not like that much. Hurricane top strength is higher than in the past. Droughts happen which wouldn’t have before. The Sahel monsoon has become unpredictable over the last 50 years, caused by climate change, and that has been a large part of many famines.

We expected the weather to act in certain ways, and while there were definitely surprises, mostly it has, for thousands of years. This doesn’t discount Europe’s warm period or little ice age, but overall, weather has been pretty consistent.

Now it isn’t. And it will be more inconsistent for a hundred or two hundred years. When you’re moving from one equilibrium to another, there tend to be wild swings until the new equilibrium settles in. Since we really have no idea what the new equilibrium will look like or when we’ll get there (saying X degrees says little and those predictions are dubious) we don’t know how long this will go on, or how bad it’ll be. A hundred to two hundred years is really just a guess.

What this means for societies is that they need to create systems which don’t expect weather or environment as usual. What it means for individuals and groups is the same. You can’t count on the normal weather. You can’t be sure the environment won’t collapse where you are, or somewhere you import food or other resources from. So you need to be able to handle what amount to near random events.

As I mentioned before, this means that outdoor gardens aren’t the hedge a lot of people think they are. Look into greenhouses and other climate controlled options. Find an independent water source, or store large amounts of water. Etc, etc… If you can’t do that (and Lord knows I can’t do most of it) do what you can, and prepare yourself psychologically.

Because our infrastructure was created for a certain climate and environment, it’s going to fail. During the heat wave some railways in England became unusable as the rail tracks expanded in the heat. It’s possible to build railways made for heat, many countries have, but then they aren’t suitable for real cold. So English railways shut down. Roads in Southern China have literally melted in the sun (this is one reason asphalt sucks and always has.) And yes, those hydropower plants.

We’re in for a very rough period in human history. All the power people were thinking it wouldn’t really start for another 20 to 30 years. They were wrong (as I predicted repeatedly over the years.) It’s here now. There will likely be pull-backs to the previous baseline, not good years, but better ones, but the overall trend will not change.

As for the global economic system, it is in slow-motion collapse. That will not change, and it will also occur in ways that are unpredictable in the short to medium term.

Be prepared, if you can.



Most Zero Sum Games Are Negative Sum & So Are Most Positive-Sum Games


Preparing for Bad Times Thread


  1. Trinity

    The IPCC has repeatedly been criticized by always going with the least likely scenarios, with their “most drastic” scenario still being low end. And this is the result. It’s been years since I read their reports, other than the summaries, because it doesn’t do any good.

    When I was in grad school around 2010, a professor gave a talk “Stationarity is Dead”, meaning what you mean here, Ian. Monthly average rainfall for the last one hundred years (in a locality) remained about the same. You could pick almost any (reasonable) interval of measurements and take the average and it would be basically the same. That’s what he was saying: that’s what has ended, for at least a hundred or more years. We’ve lost the ability to rely on climate averages staying within a reasonable, known range, so we’ve lost the ability to plan for almost everything dependent on the weather.

    Factor in that our “betters” are also making it difficult to plan for pretty much everything else (volatile markets, evermore price increases, poor healthcare if any, etc.) the name of the future is Change with a capital C. Plan to be as agile as is possible.

  2. different clue

    ” A garden” may be all that many people in suburbia and exurbia have. If they can do something else besides for food survival, they should. But maybe they should keep their garden for its usefulness till it isn’t useful any more.

    The more “food-spending” garden-havers can displace by gardening, the more “food-spending” capacity they may have over the next few years to begin paying for ” oops- no garden anymore” preparations.

    Thoughts about possible resilience of some gardening into the age of wild weather come to mind, but I have to go back to work.

    Here is a “digital re-print” of a book about dry-country farming without irrigation, from the Land and Life Library. Which everybody should read and maybe copy before the Internet goes bye-bye.

  3. StewartM

    What gets me about this news, Ian, is how too-many plod forward as if nothing is happening:

    Arizona’s leaders and communities vow to continue growing. One prominent example is Buckeye, a suburb in the desert west of Phoenix that is one of the country’s fastest growing cities. Buckeye supplies over 11,000 acre-feet of water annually to its 97,000 residents and businesses, according to city figures.

    Buckeye has enough land — and its current leaders sufficient moxie — to welcome 900,000 more residents by mid-century. At current rates of water consumption, Buckeye would need over 100,000 acre-feet annually, or 90,000 acre-feet more water than today.

    I saw this story first on the Weather Channel, and my first thought “who in the HELL is clueless enough to build in the middle of an increasingly hostile arid desert with a increasingly problematic water supply?” but lo and behold, they are coming. I would not bet my future on an area of the US increasingly racked by drought, water shortages, and wildfires.

  4. different clue

    Thinking about the climate-controlled greenhouse option . . . people who do that should prepare for the occasional onslaught of savage weather events. Perhaps make the greenhouse sides out of 3 foot thick stone or concrete or other material which will withstand a Category 6 or 7 hurricane, or an F6 or F7 tornado.

    Since no transparent material will withstand that, have the window-sides and roof part of the greenhouse out of sacrificial plastic and store up a lifetime supply of replacement transparent plastic for when the super wind rips it all away, or for when hailboulders the size of basketballs destroy it by falling on it, etc.

    And when the storm passes, put up the next round of cheap sacrificial plastic glazing.

    Or perhaps totally sacrificial hoophouses. And store a lifetime supply of hoophouse parts, so when the next storm destroys the hoophouse, you can build another sacrificial hoophouse to grow in till the next storm after that.

    Here is a bunch of images of hoophouses. Each image has its URL. Some of those URLs might link back to very interesting and informative sites. Who knows what someone might learn by url-diving?;_ylt=AwrEm096TAhjSVAA.x5XNyoA;_ylu=Y29sbwNiZjEEcG9zAzEEdnRpZAMEc2VjA3Nj?p=hoophouse+image&fr=sfp

  5. different clue

    @Stewart M,

    Anyone who would move into any new subdivision in the desert Southwest is probably clueless. But the people planning the subdivision are not clueless. Their clue may be a false clue, however.

    They are still applying the unstated Grand Strategy of Southwestern Development in the desert . . . which was and still is to have so much people and money at stake in the region that they will have the political extortion power needed to extort the rest of the country into pumping the Mississippi River to Arizona . . . or pumping the Great Lakes to Arizona . . . or damming all the rivers in the Pacific Northwest and Western Canada under the NAWAPA scheme and pumping all the water to Arizona.

    That’s why they are still luring millions more people to all the subdivisions in all the deserts of the Southwest. To have so many people and so much money at stake there that when they demand water from everywhere else, they cannot be denied.

    Our mission, should we decide to accept it, is to deny them our water. They deserve none of it, and none of it is what we should let them have. And if we can’t use politics to deny them our water which they have no right to have, then “someone” may have to plan and carry out all the “kinetic action” needed against every pipeline or canal or dam that is attempted to make sure that no infrastructure designed to steal our water and give it to them is allowed to remain standing and un-blown-up.

  6. someofparts

    One of the most unnerving things I read about climate change was from one person who had a very large garden which they had tended closely for a decade or more. All this person did was describe the changes that they observed in that garden as weather patterns changed. The person described plants blooming too late or too early and disruptions for insects and birds that showed up at the traditional time and found nothing to eat. It gave me a glimpse into how the harm of climate change will ripple out across so many species. I think spending all of our lives in man-made cities cut off from close experience of the natural world is one of the reasons that climate change can seem like an abstraction to us.

    It occurs to me, that this sort of detailed attention to the surrounding land was, I think, fairly commonplace among indigenous people. How wise of our ancestors to slaughter those people instead of learning from them.

  7. someofparts

    diff clue – Taking water from the Great Lakes is not an option for physical reasons. I don’t recall all of the details, but one that I remember was that something in the water would corrode pipelines before they made it any distance. Also, let’s not forget that the northern side of the lakes are in Canada, so it’s not as if it is entirely our water to commandeer.

  8. Ramble On

    Hunkering down will only last so long. Ultimately, any survivors will need to be nomadic traveling by foot to what few areas if any that are accommodating. If there are any survivors, it will be a hybrid Bedouin/Hunter- Gatherer existence. Maybe not so bad, all things considered. Certainly a return to our evolutionary roots.

    It’s all about perspective. Judging such a future time by current standards, that may appear to be a nightmare for people like Melania and Donald Trump and so many more like them to varying degrees, but from the contemporary perspective of that future time absent specific knowledge and experience of times past, it might not seem all that bad.

    Consider it backpacking for real.

  9. Mark Level

    A very timely post from Ian here. I don’t listen to National Propaganda Radio much (lower listening levels than even before over the last 6 months, as the Russian SMO caused the fake liberals there to deploy rancid, ridiculous propaganda about brave Ukies “winning” regularly, at which point I quickly change the station), but anyway this morning they had an interesting piece about the dropping water flow of the Colorado River, and how originally the feds had demanded water “restrictions” from the 7 states effected, but per usual done nothing (see Mayo Pete’s non-response to airline cancelled flights and holding consumers’ $$$ post cancellation, despite current law)– But now some months later, the water is so low that local dams will no longer produce hydroelectric power, so they’re belatedly making actual demands in a few states for water use cuts. (We’ll see if any enforcement follows) . . . they also mentioned at the end of the piece that Mexico is also affected as the Colorado River runs there, kind of as an afterthought (colonialist mindset). . . . Anyway, very glad that climate change provoked me to move last year from Northern California to Northern Minnesota. We had a winter “drought”, definitely, but drought here does not result in full drying up and collapse as overall it’s a very wet ecosystem. (I can literally walk 500 feet from my apt. front door to the 3rd floor Duluth skyway and see Lake Superior shining down the hill.) Someofparts et al are definitely correct, hare-brained plans of the Denialists in Arizona to pipe water there from the Mississippi River, or fantasies of draining the Great Lakes won’t cut it vis a vis basic limitations of physics. An interesting Graphic Novel take on looting/draining the Great Lakes in a future USA denuded by drought was published by Brian K. Vaughan in 2016, called “We Stand on Guard.” For those interested enough to consider purchasing or finding it at the local library, here are some spoilers– 100s of years on, US Empire has grabbed most of Lake Superior to drain for use of the dry middle region and west of the country but it’s not enough. So they create a fake “terrorist” incident as an excuse to invade Canada and steal their large lakes, esp. the Great Slave Lake in NW Canada which is only somewhat smaller than the Great Lakes. They run the war along the lines of our wonderful “liberations” of Afghanistan and Iraq, which succeeded so wonderfully, killing much of the local population, and (new tactic) enslaving many captured local opponents on large Agricultural projects . . . a small group which does actually have to utilize actual “terrorist” tactics eventually does deter the American advance– since everything’s tech-based more than human soldiers, one strategic suicide bomber in the right place at the right time deals a major defeat to the US Empire which strategically backs off . . . Vaughan at one point was writing for “Lost”, I believe, & has another award winning series that’s been running for years. It’s pulpy adventure stuff, but overall I would say the politics of the piece are pretty spot-on, he definitely captured the State Terrorism, torture etc. of the NeoCon era which we continue to live in. If you’re not living near a still functioning local ecosystem things will not improve, events are moving in a different direction. Mom Nature continues to bat last!!

  10. Trinity

    I agree with DC that clueless people either have enough money and power not to care, or simply can’t process what’s going on. And the narrative about climate change must be controlled, or people might panic and actually do something about it.

    Aren’t the Saudi’s growing most of their crops in AZ or NM? Or did that end? I remember seeing satellite imagery of their fields (and the mechanical waterers).

    Most of the aquifers around the country have been drained to support all the new residences and businesses (especially server farms). Even north Florida is struggling to supply enough water for all the new housing they’ve built since 2013. I remember back in 2007 or 2008 when someone showed me that at the Florida guvmint had already approved building a couple million new homes. That was put on hold, but they’ve been building like gangbusters lately, based on the more recent satellite imagery I’ve seen.

    When the glaciers start melting at faster rates, that’s when things will really get interesting.

    I’ve been lately considering two things: becoming a van dweller, or emptying out my accounts and doing all the things I ever wanted to do until I run out of money, and then just dying. It’s difficult to plan anything, really.

  11. Joan


    Our ancestors who were peasant farmers in Europe had that close attention to the natural environment too. Anyone who could starve over a long winter is going to pay very close attention to the harvest. But your point stands on being disconnected from nature these days.

    @different clue,

    There’s videos online of empty apartment towers in China being imploded. I imagine a much less interesting version happening in the SW, of abandoned suburbs left for cartel raiders.

  12. Some Guy

    Yeah, I mean it has all been so obvious all along.

    Meanwhile, Nordhaus et al are given a ‘nobel’ prize for their work estimating the impact on the economy from climate change, work which pretends that none of this could ever happen or have any impact.

    I mean, sure you expect clowns on twitter to have dumb opinions, but when you are talking about leading members of global professions and this level of cluelessness … not only was it obvious all along that we would see these types of impacts, our failure to respond was also obvious ahead of time.

  13. Mary Bennett

    So, the famous Three Gorges dam was not so good an idea after all?

    Outdoor gardens must not be abandoned. They will have to be adjusted to new climate realities, for example eventually growing the colder weather vegetables through the winter instead of summer. Much can be done with thick mulches and water storage. We do need, right now, to be planting trees, especially for fruit and nuts, as well as pollarded sources of winter fuel.

  14. Ché Pasa

    After living among peoples most of my life and spending the last decade and more in the wilderness of New Mexico, growing what I can, saving seeds, building soil health, etc., in a water-scarce area, still learning because I’m very ignorant, I’m convinced the only way we’re collectively going to get through this period of extremes and climate chaos is in small bands, able to simplify and adapt to sometimes extreme adversity.

    We talk about the Yangtze and Loire running dry. Well, the Rio Grande is running dry, too, despite a fairly generous monsoon. There’s still enough water to irrigate crops — barely and in some places, not — but our farmer friend up the road is selling his 160 acres and moving north because he doesn’t think the water situation is sustainable here, he can’t keep drilling his wells deeper and deeper, and too soon, it’ll be over for people like him. There is no easy or tech fix. I cried.

    California’s Central Valley is, I think, in worse shape, despite promises of Moar Water from far away. And the notion that Phoenix can keep expanding indefinitely is idiotic, even less sustainable than Las Vegas. One after another, urban areas will essentially have to be abandoned, and one of the ironies of the situation is that rust belt cities that were already already abandoned are poised to be in a much better position climate wise and probably can accept many refugees from the dry-as-dust Southwest. Who’d a thunk?

    Let’s remember the motto: “Every crisis is an opportunity.” And not just for the rich and evil.

  15. Ché Pasa

    Um, “living among Native peoples most of my life”. Funny how words get dropped….

  16. Willy

    Republicans: climate change is a hoax.

    Democrats: climate change would be real if it wasn’t for those meddling Republicans, but here’s a little something to tide you over until they’re back in power again.

    Las Vegas: providing desert dwellers hope with water saving mandates.

    Exxon: providing change deniers hope with our climate capture technologies.

    On the plus, if I was a desert dweller with a job in real estate, finance, tech, medical, or undocumented labor exploitation (meaning some discretionary income), I’d buy an electric car complete with solar panel roofed garage, and then do “water capture from air” and sell it to my neighbors under some green franchise banner. Not sure what I’d do if I was in China though.

  17. different clue


    Those of us who live in Great Lakestan know the Northern side is Canadian and the Southern side is American. Six Great Lakestani States and two Great Lakestani Provinces have all co-signed the Great Lakes Compact together which we the mere inhabitants of Great Lakestan hope that the Governments who signed it understand it to mean that no one outside the basin will ever be permitted to take any water from the basin. ( Some crappy little town right next to the edge of the basin has already been allowed to sink a municipal well, which I hope is not the first breach in the Great WaterWall of Great Lakestan. And of course smoove operators like Nestle are shyster-legally taking water from the basin to sell beyond the basin in bottles).

    The use of the phrase “our water to commandeer” is strange in this context. Us Great Lakestanis consider it “our water to protect” against illegitimate water-diversion-aggression conspiracies coming from various “thems” who live outside the watershed. Especially including the Desert Southwest water-takers.

  18. Chris M

    You’re assumption seems to be that the elites and those in power are not aware that climate change is not here and causing existential problems. Have you considered that they have concluded that culling the herds and reducing populations are the means of addressing the problem?

  19. Ian Welsh

    Oh, I think some of them see it that way, yes, Chris. But it won’t work, for a variety of reasons.

  20. GrimJim

    One thing that fascinated me about various old fairy tales of Europe is the number of them that dealt with travelling into the ground in a long tunnel, and at the end coming to a land that was much like the surface world, with day and night
    sunlight and moonlight, and even stars,but it all felt wrong, with strange breezes and smells. There were farms, crops, small herds of magical cows and sheep, and the inhabitants of the land, small people who were not quite human, had access to strange, powerful magic.

    I sometimes wonder if those stories are based on early encounters with the last remnants of the descendents of the peoples who went underground after the last such ecological catastrophe at the end of the last interglacial period. All remnants of their civilization would be long lost on the surface world; the pyramids of Egypt will only last 20,000 years, and we are talking 250,000 years ago with massive glaciers and terrible climate for hundreds of millennia…

    I wonder what kind of massive subterranean living, breathing vaults the super rich are building today. Water closest to the subterranean sources, energy directly from geothermal sources, entire ecosystems transplanted in miles long caverns…

    What might the next subspecies of Hominin discover in tunnels under their lands in 200-some millennia?

  21. someofparts

    You know, the folks that think culling the human population is any kind of response to climate change need to talk to the gang on the Supreme Court. Forcing women to have children no one can/will care for seems to run pretty contrary to the idea of thinning the population.

    diff clue – When I used the phrase about commandeering the water, I was thinking of places like Arizona. As far as the people who already live near the lakes, I figure those communities would do everything in their power to prevent others in the country from taking that water. Sorry if that wasn’t clear.

  22. different clue


    I don’t see any contradiction between the US Soopreem Kourt’s enshrinement of Catholic Sharia Law against women and Jackpot Design Engineering.

    The Soopreem Kourt decision is about returning women to as much slavery as possible step by step. The Soopreem Kourtsters don’t care what happens to forced-birth babies after they have been born, only that womanslaves are forced to bear them. After the forced-birth babies have been born, the Overclass ( which the Soopreem Kourt exists to serve) can Jackpot those babies all it likes, so far as the Catholic Sharia Law Soopreem Kourt is concerned.

    Everyone knows that ” the Right To Life begins at conception and ends at birth.”

  23. Astrid

    For the narrow band of the populace that I belong to, life in the decade before 2020 may really be the best ever, as long as you had the right blinders on. The restaurant and foodie scene has improved tremendously. TV and movies and video games programming is pretty fantastic if you know where to look. The Internet censorship and corruption noose is tightening, but the absolute proliferation of content meant that information of every sort of now more accessible for those who know how to look. Travel got cheap and easy for a lot of people without having to rely on Lonely Planet guides and hostels. For Boomers who “wisely” bought coastal property or stocks at the right time (my parents amongst them), people who weren’t so successful had themselves to blame.

    Of course, anyone who was trying to raised children, buy a house, or didn’t have stable employment could feel differently (even my friends who can afford au pairs and/or have massive parental help seem to strain). Or in my case, noticing how many brown people were getting dying in proximity of USian troops, who got bailed out 2008, etc.

    In my opinion, the best option for safety is, as it’s always been, to try and move to a comparatively more stable and lawful society. This may be Russia, China, or Iran. Even though they are subjected to significant stresses, living under a functional “authoritarian” government is significantly less oppressive than under a neoliberal kleptocracy for the non-sociopathetic.

  24. sbt42

    You can also find the Dry-Farming book – that different clue referenced earlier – at the Gutenberg Project website via the following link:

    Looking into this myself, as I’m currently in rocky desert terrain in an arid climate (a wide “diurnal temperature swing,” meaning daytime temperatures can vary 40 degrees F or more from night-time). We made it through the summer with close to two months without rain, and things are finally starting to precipitate again. Several days with triple-digits F temperatures, sometimes five or more in a row, during that time.

    There’s also research being done with south-facing (as we’re in the northern hemisphere), partially-underground greenhouses that may partially-resist hurricanes and tornadoes. The goal is to reduce the temperature swings and “keep some of the heat” from the summer by absorbing it in earthen walls and thermal wells: literally pits that collect cold air and force warmth to exude (and rise to greenhouse-level) from the surrounding earth. During the winter the heat will permeate into the greenhouse area and prevent freezes.

  25. different clue

    Those of us of the majority who don’t have the class-privilege-based-option to contemplate moving somewhere else will just have to survive in place as best we can.

    We can still share and seek “survival-in-place” information on these threads and others like them. Till the internet itself is shut down for good and then digital technology of all kinds disappears after that.

    Ian Welsh may be right about “gardening” in the medium term. He has been right about other things. Just in case, if I can think of any useful “climate-resilient” approaches to gardening to leave at the Bad Times thread, I will give them headers as to what kind of “climate resilient” I think they might be. And of course, in the meantime plain old gardening can work until it can’t anymore.

    Nothing but Bad Times ahead.

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