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

What’s The Good Future Look Like In Environmental Collapse?

There are a few possible answers to this question, but one comes out of a conversation I just had with a friend. He observed that replies suggest westerners don’t like the idea of arcologies:

My answer? “No. Well, it doesn’t really matter. Soon enough it will be “Arcologies, bitches, or you all die.”

A bit of exaggeration for effect, but what people don’t get about climate change is that the real problem isn’t “it’s getting hotter” but ecological collapse and that these numbers are looking closer and closer than the standard models suggested. (Which regular readers will know is what I’ve said for years.)

It’s all about tipping points and self-reinforcing “doom-loops”.

So, there will be war, revolution, lots of violence, massive famines, huge refugee crises and so on. This will all happen sooner than people really expect.

Any solution set is going to require a lot of re-wilding. And that means, at the least, the end of suburbs and exurbs and probably the end of most farms as we know them. We are going to have to figure out how to make very high density farming work, whether that’s highly curated food forests and regenerative agriculture, or its vertical farms and massive vertical greenhouses, or it’s underwater farms (high pressure atmospheres leads to extremely fast growth). Or, more realistically all of these and more.

As for humans, a lucky few, maybe one or two percent will get to live in the new wilderness in exchange for taking care of it and everyone else is going to get crammed into high density. Well, that or we reduce the population to about a billion people, a process which will involve a lot of blood.

If people want out of the high density, they will simply have to prove that they increase biodiversity. If they make there be more animals and plants and bugs and microbes and so on with their presence, they can be wherever that is true. If not, arcologies or very high density urban.

There’s a bunch of other stuff, like the end to planned obsolesence. Creating something that is meant to break and isn’t biodegradable and made from actual renewable resources will have to be treated like we do serial killers today, minus the romanticization.

But basically, you can’t live with nature if you don’t strengthen the ecology. Otherwise, into the arcology.


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20 Comments

  1. StewartM

    I really don’t see a problem living in such a space. When I was in Vietnam recently, I stayed in an apartment complex that contained pharmacies, dentists, convenience stores, restaurants, grocery stores, and more, all on the first floor of every building (ours had a Starbucks). In-between the buildings were swimming pools, outdoor exercise areas, tennis courts, basketball courts, and playgrounds. Most everything you needed was within walking distance.

    Now if you add cheap and convenient and fast mass transit, like Taiwan, you’re all set. For today’s isolated elderly, it may be a godsend—I don’t know how many times Vietnamese children came up to me to practice their English (and I in turn, tried out my bad Vietnamese). You have privacy when you need it and all you have to do is to step outside to get community.

    I’ve long advocated re-wilding, and have bemoaned ‘development’ that plows over pristine land while already-paved over land becomes abandoned eyesores. I would either simply prohibit this or tax it to oblivion or require that any new development be compensated by the developer paying to return, say, *three times* the amount of space to be paved over to nature. When Europeans came to this continent, it was said a squirrel could travel from the East Coast to Missouri by hopping from tree to tree. If we’re serious about climate change (we’re not) that’s exactly what we do.

    PS. And no gated communities either! No ‘nice’ places for the rich, even if they can pay for it.

  2. Richard Holsworth

    In the half-century since Soleri articulated his goals, things have gotten much bleaker than even he imagined; still, it’s refreshing for at least a while to imagine humanity blossoming into something better.
    Arcology and Arcosanti: Towards a Sustainable Built Environment
    Soleri believes that these environments can be instrumental in human evolutionary terms. He asserts that by adopting a more frugal lifestyle inside an arcology, its citizens would have the potential not only to do less harm to the planet but also to develop themselves spiritually (Soleri, 1981). The approach clearly presupposes a radical revision of existing social, cultural, political, and economic structures. Soleri points out the direction that must be taken within the complexity – miniaturization – duration (CMD) paradigm. –
    https://www.researchgate.net/publication/286895490_Arcology_and_Arcosanti_Towards_a_Sustainable_Built_Environment

  3. Purple Library Guy

    Mm. I’m not actually sure how much more environmentally friendly these things are. Sure, their own literal direct physical footprint is small per person, but tall things require extra resources in various ways, both to build and on an ongoing basis–there’s a lot of lifting going on. Big apartment buildings require a hinterland to service them. Probably there’s still an advantage, but I’d want to see someone do the math fairly seriously comparing a few different options before I jumped to too many conclusions about what’s ideal.
    Imagine for instance you keep the urban sprawl, but you just keep enough transportation corridors for a robust transit system and pretty much nobody in the sprawl owns their own vehicle. Rezone for walkable shopping areas with parcel pickup at a post office. And then you outlaw the lawn–all vegetation in the sprawl is either native species or food or both. It’d look pretty different. Probably would rewild quite a lot even with all the people still there. Would it be optimum? Probably not, but again, I’d like to see someone do the math on the scenario.

    Planned obsolescence does have to go. And, I don’t see how you get rid of planned obsolescence while keeping capitalism. It didn’t happen by accident after all–planned obsolescence means more profits, long lasting goods mean less profits, holding capitalists to strategies that give them less profits is nearly impossible in the medium term.

  4. Richard Holsworth

    Will the fortunate few survivors in building with tens of thousands of residents be issued AR/VR headsets as pacifiers…
    “Imagine watching an adult movie in an environment like Mount Hood, where the screen feels an astonishing 100 feet wide. The Vision Pro has the ability to transport you to any setting, blocking out your surroundings and providing an intimate and private space for indulging in adult content. Whether you’re on an airplane or in the comfort of your own home, this headset offers the ultimate escape.” -from the Internet.

  5. Willy

    Our elites will always want the top floors. And then private elevators. Then helipads. And then confining their lessers to coffin apartments just so they can brag about the size of their top floors, private elevators and helipads and feel superior.

    I think before we can do any of this arcosanti shit, we need to quit worshipping our rich and famous as ‘superiors’, excepting in those rarest of circumstances where they actually did build things that made our lives better.

    In my own little world, I make sure to tell my rich visitors that while my stuff might be modest, at least I built it myself and with ecological sustainability in mind, and all you rich parasites ever did was to suck on the dick of power to get yours.

    At least if I had any rich visitors I’d say that.

  6. StewartM

    PLG,

    I’m not sure that you can keep the sprawl and maintain biodiversity. Not too many want big predator species, say alligators or bears or mountain lions, walking by their homes and moreover some of the biodiversity can’t tolerate that degree of human habitation. I don’t know what you mean by ‘hinterland’, but just saying by my experience it’s possible to have it set up so most daily needs can be met by just walking there.

    I’m with you on planned obsolescence (especially noted in tech, which is why phones are relentlessly promoted over computers, the latter which can be upgraded and repaired). Related to this, leasing should be restricted, and ownership promoted, and every technology platform should be open-sourced so multiple vendors can provide spare parts and service for repair. Even then, you’ll need a recycling stream; there’s no way around that problem.

    I’ve wondered if renting should be discouraged, and owning be promoted, in the realm of real estate, so that every month’s rent goes towards ownership. That’s one way to keep wealth dispersed.

  7. KT Chong

    When a person is sick, her body heats up (she has a fever) as her immune system works to fight off the infections.

    Our planet is a living organism. Humans are a virus. The planet is having a fever = climate change/global warming, as the immune system is releasing antibodies to fight off, reduce and kill the virus = HUMAN BEINGS.

    That is what happening.

    So, save the planet, go kill yourselves.

  8. KT Chong

    P.S. COVID 19 is just an antibody of the planet in an attempt to fight and kill the virus. It may seems like a lab leak, but it is actually part of the bigger scheme that works in mysterious way. There will certainly be more and deadlier (for us) antibodies to come as the planet unleashes more and more effective antibodies to combat the virus.

  9. different clue

    People who think of “species human” as the virus probably are viruses themselves, and are projecting their own virus-hood upon humanity in general. Industrial civilized human as presently constituted could certainly be considered a malignant cancer. The answer would be to de-industrialize and de-civilize back to a genuinely human level.

    The Indigenous Nations were never a virus. Many of them spent thousands of years steadily eco-upgrading the land they lived on.

  10. GlassHammer

    Re-Wilding areas that have been stripped of nutrients in the soil while dealing with unpredictable rain fall is going to be a frustrating process.

    I don’t think people realize how difficult it is to transform an area that is Inhospitable to plant life into one that isn’t.

    You will be happy to just see clover grow….

  11. Purple Library Guy

    @StewartM I live in a suburb, albeit a fairly treed one; there already are bears walking by my home. So no, I don’t see that as a huge stretch.

    @KT Chong No. That is not what is happening. We know exactly what is happening, there’s science about it. Your cute metaphor is just that–a metaphor, not some kind of essence of what is actually going on. If we used different technologies to gain our energy, the planet’s ecosystem would still be collapsing from the load we’re putting on it in general, but it wouldn’t be getting hotter.

  12. GrimJim

    The closest we might get to an arcology is a series of connected buildings amidst the ruins in a city along the shores of one of the Great Lakes. There, the upper levels, protected from the scalding sandstorms and thundersnow by glass and steel, are gardens, which combined with mushroom farms in the depths of the ruins, might be able to grow enough food for a couple thousand people.

    They’d have to be vegetarians, there being no crops left over for meat animals, and all such, including fish and birds having died out long ago. They’d have honey, because they’d have to have bees, or they’d all be dead. They might have roach farms for much-needed protein.

    Tech would be about the level of the early 18th century, all muscle or waterpower (winds too dangerous, no more beasts of burden). Electricity might be able to be generated by riding stationary bikes, for a few decades, but the irreplaceable batteries would die out sooner than later.

    People would spend their time tending to the gardens above and within (lit by bioluminescent fungi or simple torches made from wood from the plentiful dead and rotting forests). They would shepherd their greatest treasures, the surviving books from the olden days, both keepers of life and myth and entertainment. They might have some ancient record players, adapted to being run on cranks.

    They are great tellers of tales and musicians. It is all they have.

    They’d be agnostics at worst, most likely atheists, as any group of any faith would not be able to keep up their systems, putting too much faith in prayer and not enough in actual labor, and of course, being divided by the quality of their faith, and keeping on useless priests.

    They’d be mostly egalitarian and democratic by default, as there is no “wealth” or “power” to speak of. The only punishment for crimes too monstrous to ignore or punish by shunning would be either exile or death (the criminal chooses, most choose death).

    Everyone works, everyone eats, or everyone dies.

    And it keeps going that way till the tipping point, when too much of the glass and steel protecting the gardens break and cannot be fixed due to lack of materials, or some pest kills off too many plants or mushrooms, roaches or bees. or some disease weakens or kills off too many people to keep the system going.

    Or maybe, early on, surviving wanderer/raiders simply come in and destroy the whole thing in an orgy of violence and destruction, likely to fill their bellies for a week, maybe in the name of their mad god of the wastes, or perhaps simply out of jealousy.

  13. Mark Pontin

    SF writers’ predictions have a bit of a ‘billion monkeys typing eventually produce Shakespeare’ aspect to them. But I’m reminded of two books from fifty-two years, in1971, when Soleri and the Club of Rome report (which led THE LIMITS TO GROWTH the next year ) were first making public waves —

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_World_Inside

    The World Inside is a science fiction novel by American writer Robert Silverberg, published in 1971 … set on Earth in the year 2381, when the population of the planet has reached 75 billion people …

    War, starvation, crime and birth control have been eliminated. Life is now totally fulfilled and sustained within Urban Monads (Urbmons), mammoth thousand-floor skyscrapers … dividided into 25 self-contained “cities” of 40 floors each, in ascending order of status, with administrators occupying the highest level. Each building can hold approximately 800,000 people, with excess population totalling three billion a year transferred to new Urbmons, which are continually under construction.

    The Urbmon population is supported by the conversion of all of the Earth’s habitable land area not taken up by Urbmons to agriculture. The theoretical limit of the population supported by this arrangement is estimated to be 200 billion. The farmers live a very different lifestyle, with strict birth control. Farmers trade their produce for technology and the two societies rarely have direct contact; even their languages are mutually unintelligible.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Half_Past_Human

    Half Past Human is a … novel by American author T. J. Bass, published in 1971 … Bass’ future Earth is an environment in which the sum of the biota serves as its food chain. Human science has created the four-toed Nebish, a pallid, short-lived and highly programmable humanoid who has had the elements that do not facilitate an underground Hive existence (aggression, curiosity, etc.) bred out of it.

    The five-toed humans … wander the biofarms that keep the trillions of Earth’s Nebish population fed. All vertebrates other than man and rat are extinct, so meat comes from other humans (and the occasional rat). The conflict between the Hives and the roving bands of five-toed original Humans, who are reduced to savagery and hunted like vermin by Hive Security, forms the backdrop of this novel.

  14. Quite Likely

    Why would any of this require people to live in arcologies? The suburbs are certainly environmental arson, but existing urban areas are plenty dense to hold all of humanity in a pretty small land area. I seem to remember the statistic that at NYC densities all of humanity could live in Texas.

  15. different clue

    @GrimJim,

    They could have flying robot bees.
    https://wyss.harvard.edu/technology/robobees-autonomous-flying-microrobots/

    https://builtin.com/robotics/robot-bees

    Which would be a perfect fit with their vertical stackhouse existence.

  16. mago

    Arcosanti. Paolo Soleri.
    Quite the rage in alternative circles in the 70’s.
    Everyone had a metal bell from there.
    My girlfriend was a baker there. She slept on the roof and also got pregnant there and had an abortion before we got together at a Boston macrobiotic restaurant where history repeated itself.
    In the early 90’s I finally visited Soleri’s Arizona desert dream and thought, are you fucking kidding me? This is it?
    And the diehard old timers staffing the place seemed zombified.
    Just my take of course.

  17. GrimJim

    @different clue

    The problem with that is the tech required to keep up any sort of robotic anything won’t remotely be available.

    All our modern tech depends on a vast, complex, worldwide trade network. Especially cutting edge tech as described.

    That will be one of the first things to go when climate change really kicks into gear.

    Your ability to develop and maintain tech in the post-collapse world will depend on what you can dependably acquire within about two days of travel.

    At first there may be enough raw material in the ruins to jpdo just about anything, but the cost in time, energy, and maintenance for high tech will be prohibitive.

    And depending on it to survive? A fool’s game. If using such tech is the only way you can survive you can literally count the days until you die based on the materials available required for maintenance.

    Resources Possessed ÷ Resources Required Per Daily Maintenance = # Days of Survival.

  18. GrimJim

    Oh, and by two days of travel, I mean on foot.

    Horses and other big beasts of burden won’t last long once things go bad. They are very climate dependent.

    Not to mention in the chaotic decades following the collapse, any domestic and most wild mammals larger than a fox will either be driven to extinction or very, very hard to find.

    Horses, cattle, sheep, goats, deer, and the like will simply all be eaten. No one will be planning far out ahead enough for animal husbandry. They’ll just be desperate to eat, and so anything that can be caught, including other humans, will be eaten.

    I expect goats in the mountains and deer and horses in the Canadian north will fare better. Maybe in a million years their descendants will populate the slowly recovering Great Plains, and there will be great, huge, shaggy Aurochs-like sheep and some sort of bison-like deer. Paraceratherium-sized horses again? One can dream.

    But for any surviving humans, getting from point A to point B will require foot power for, well… ever. And traveling more than a week from your home base, without knowledge of and contacts at other settlements will be like early exploration of Antarctica…

    You’ll probably die, and none will ever find your bones…

  19. capelin

    We’ve been handed a perfectly great planet with everything we need, and all we have to do is not arse it up worse than we have already.

    But no. And if we can’t even do that, we’re not going to rube-goldberg together some kind of post-collapse steam-punk survival strategy.

    We get a grip on our governance, our war-making; and turn our attention on mitigating the damage we’ve caused so far; or we go down.

    There’s nothing wrong with and plenty right with walkable, human scaled, local communities – ya know, like communities used to be. The concept is being weoponized now though, 15 min cities with lots of cameras and rules.

  20. different clue

    @GrimJim,

    The future could have a place for historical re-enactors who are willing to commit themselves to learning all they can about pre-digital and maybe even pre-industrial technologies and starting up neo-medievalist survivalist re-enactor villages and farmscapes here and there. They can prepare to take their chances outside the Arcostalag Walls and hope for the best.

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