Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Expecting the Unexpected

"As we settle in now for another four years with President Obama and, probably, very little action on climate change, peak everything, or crucial preparations of an oblivious human population for a very different future than most expect, we can only wonder whether the hurricane that struck New York and the East Coast this past week, after slamming through Haiti, will be a (late) wake up call for the President and Congress or just another milepost whizzing by. "
 

The fisherman throwing his discards to the gulls under a red orange sky at sunset with flamingoes still wading just off shore in brilliant turquoise waters in the background makes this place seem like a Jimmy Buffet license plate.

We are back in Mexico, revisiting old haunts. A few years ago we asked Richard Heinberg what he thought about jetting around the world to speak at various events, and he said he thought now was a good time to be doing that; as world explorers and messengers we should travel as much as we could; the day will soon enough come when air travel will be too expensive or even unavailable at any price.

In solemn atonements (our planting ceremony runs something like, “Grow, ya bugger!”) we plant trees  and bamboo groves for our travel indulgences, and make biochar from the coppicings. Last year we were in eight countries; next year we already have speaking engagements in ten. We might have taken the advice a bit too seriously.

In the fall of 2005, we were at this same location in Southern Mexico, clutching the book contract to write The Post-Petroleum Survival Guide and Cookbook for New Society Publishers, its ink still wet. After searching about, we spent part of our advance to take lodgings in a sweet little grass shack on a beach off the Straits of Cuba. Our perfect book-writing retreat was in a rustic, dirt-road town with one internet café and almost no-one who spoke English.

That October we had gone back to Tennessee to tie up some business before hunkering down in Mexico for the winter, sheaves of research in hand. Then the unexpected.

On October 19, Caribbean breezes kicked up to Tropical Storm strength along the Southern coast of Mexico. Tropical Depression number 24 had formed four days before, 85 miles SW of Jamaica, and had organized with unprecedented speed. On Monday it tied a record of 1933 by becoming the 21st named storm of the Atlantic season. The name it was given was “Wilma.” By Wednesday it had become the 12th hurricane of the year and had set another record: at 5 pm that day its pressure was recorded at 892 millibars. It had become the strongest hurricane in history. If there were Category 5 hurricanes, Wilma might have been a Cat 5.

The flight back to Mexico had been cancelled. The airlines were sending their aircraft only one way – outbound, jam-packed with evacuating tourists. Wilma made landfall at noon on Friday, crossing Cozumel and moving into the Yucatan Peninsula. The impact weakened it to a Category 3, but it also stalled its forward motion, so the giant storm just lingered, pounding Cancun and the Riviera Maya through Saturday. The National Hurricane Center said it was “meandering,” then “drifting northward,” then “erratically drifting.” Hurricane force winds persisted over land for 24 hours, then 48. Finally, on Sunday afternoon, Wilma drifted Northeastward into the Gulf of Mexico, passing directly over my palm-leaf shack, with sustained winds of 115 mph.

On Monday Wilma slammed Palm Beach, Florida as a Cat 3 storm with winds at 125 mph, but it was moving so fast – 50 mph – that it crossed Florida in just 2 hours and headed North into the Atlantic. On Tuesday it dissipated, 200 miles Southeast of Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Mexico is extraordinary when it comes to disaster preparedness, but Wilma left six dead — one of them a body washed ashore from Cuba — and devastation in our small town was total. The entire village went under 3 feet of churning water for a day or more. Eighteen-foot breakers had pounded shore-front properties to rubble. But, thanks to military-enforced evacuation of the entire coast, people were mostly unharmed and were soon able to return.

As soon as the airport reopened, we flew down to see what had become of our advance book royalty. It was not a pretty sight.

What was pretty, though, were the ways that people came together to assist one another in the clean-up and rebuilding. It would be another month or more before power and water would return, and the internet café was now a sandy pile of soggy CPUs and broken plastic terminals, but with a deadline to meet, we began writing our Survival Guide with a folding solar array, a motorcycle battery, and a set of cables that could charge the iBook during the day. We got hot water from a solar shower bag and baked some quesadillas with a solar oven.

Our roof, surprisingly enough, was entirely intact, its palm thatch rising and falling in respiration with its tormenter. It is still in fine shape now, 7 years later. Where the rushing seas, in their retreat to the Caribbean, undercut our little home’s foundations and caused the walls to crack and collapse, we excavated down and poured fresh cement. The government came with trucks and gave away free construction materials. All over the Yucatan there were piles of sand, bags of cement, steel rod, and concrete block piled neatly in front of every damaged home. 

At night, with no power for televisions or computers, the village would assemble in the central plaza with guitars, fiddles, and flutes. A generator would light the park. We would dance and sing and laugh and tell jokes.

Within a year, we could hardly tell that any storm had come through, so complete were the repairs.

We wrote this chapter in our book in those months:

“Preparing for peak oil can be relatively easy, since the preparation is 75 percent mental, 15 percent physical, and 10 percent fiscal. Don’t be flabbergasted at what to do. Quit asking should I buy solar? Should I buy an axe? Should I buy a gun? The answers are no, no, and no …. This feeling of a need to buy stuff is in fact the very reason why we have this predicament. We over-consume. The preparation problem is not addressed by buying more stuff; it’s addressed by mentally and physically getting used to the idea of getting by on less stuff.” — Chris Lisle

Sometimes it is comforting to recall that life before Colonel Drake discovered that well in Titusville, Pennsylvania, was not without creature comforts. Blacksmiths under spreading chestnut trees worked on steam-electric “horseless carriages.” Trains and horse-drawn wagons brought fresh food from distant farms. The most daring folks even tottered around on the penny-farthing bicycle. Many of the jobs people had then were not so different from jobs today. Some would be greatly enhanced by the tools we have developed in the past century.

In many other ways, the world is a very different place. The first big change is global warming. Our burgeoning population has added significant amounts of greenhouse gases to the air, and we know from the fossil record that every time atmospheric carbon has risen, so have global temperatures. We have now nearly doubled CO2 concentrations that existed at the start of the industrial era, and reliable science suggests it will take thousands, possibly millions, of years for natural processes to bring us back to pre-industrial equilibrium. In the near term — the next century or two — the world is going to get warmer. Much warmer.

The areas first noticeably affected by this warming will likely be in the mid-continental regions, where drier soil conditions will prevail, droughts will occur more frequently, and desertification will be a serious threat. Next will be coastal areas, where sea-level rise, increased rainfall, and storm activity will submerge entire islands and permanently alter the shape of continents. These changes will be most profound at the higher latitudes, but no part of the Earth will be spared completely.

***

Global warming is not the only ticking time bomb. For 50 years, the nuclear industry has routinely been receiving permits to dump radioactive wastes into the air and water even though British, French, Dutch, Russian, and other governments are well aware of the lethal consequences to future generations. The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission expects 1.7 million cancer and genetic deaths in the world population from current US-based plants alone.

At least the nuclear industry has watchdog agencies, even if their historic role has been more like that of lapdogs. The level of regulation in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries is far more lackadaisical. Thousands of chemical and pharmaceutical dumpsites are leaching toxic compounds into the environment without anyone seeming to notice. Rivers, oceans, and atmosphere have been treated as a vast open sewer, and the damage to human and ecosystem health is only beginning.

***

So this is where we find ourselves. We have spent the past hundred or so years at a huge party thrown by petroleum. Our host has spared no expense and has lavished wonderful gifts upon us, and we are surely grateful. Some of the gifts we have used wisely and some we have wasted. The party has been going on for so long that most people, although tired, have the sense that it’s a permanent thing — that we can go home and go to bed and come back again tomorrow and it will still be here.

Wrong.

It’s nearly over now. The band is packing up. Tomorrow we have the big cleanup.

As we settle in now for another four years with President Obama and, probably, very little action on climate change, peak everything, or crucial preparations of an oblivious human population for a very different future than most expect, we can only wonder whether the hurricane that struck New York and the East Coast this past week, after slamming through Haiti, will be a (late) wake up call for the President and Congress or just another milepost whizzing by. Only time will tell. 
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