On November 8, 2018, the Woolsey fire in Malibu destroyed 1600 structures and killed 3 people.
Are you surprised when three weeks ago, while the entire West is fried by drought, suddenly a thousand people in Death Valley were stranded by flooding? Were you surprised last year when Portland Oregon (a city north of Toronto), whose average high June temperature is 76 F, suddenly saw a high of 116F that killed 63 people? These news events are surprising but now, unfortunately, not unexpected. This is what the new normal of climate change looks like: a slowly worsening environment punctuated by sudden catastrophes. Those seeming “catastrophes” will become the new normal a few years from now. In other words, what news today will become, inexorably, normal tomorrow? The 50-year storm, that civil engineers design drainage for, will start appearing every ten years. A tsunami, that can happen at any time, may do in 8 minutes what sea level rise will do in 8 decades on Santa Monica’s beach. Essentially we are now on a climate change conveyor belt that relentlessly takes today’s unusual catastrophes and makes them normal tomorrow.
Illusions have “protected” us
We have the illusion that we are protected by distance from grim climate-induced catastrophes elsewhere. “That’s over there, it doesn’t affect me” is a common sentiment. But, as the news cycle proves repeatedly, distance is no protection, A war breaks out in Ukraine and starvation breaks out in Ethiopia. That same war in Ukraine destabilizes the entire global oil market and Californians are suddenly buying $6.00/gal gas. The massively melting glaciers of Greenland will ripple through the global hydrosphere eventually submerging our Mc Clure tunnel. The effect may not be immediate, but sooner than you think because these interlocking climate changes are not slowing down: they are actually accelerating. Thus distance is no protection, it only delays slightly how soon the impact of worldwide events is felt here. So the next time you hear of massive forest fires in say Spain or horrible flooding in Bangladesh “do not ask for whom the bell tolls……it tolls for thee”. Everything is connected.
We also have the illusion that technology will prevent the unavoidable. While photovoltaic solar collectors, windmill farms, xeriscaping, water recycling, better batteries and countless similar technological improvements, all have the vital function of buffering climate change impacts, they are simply not coming on line fast enough and some, like desalinization, or small-scale nuclear has its own significant secondary impacts. For example, if we suddenly could magically convert all our cars into glorified golf carts, the entire power grid would collapse as it can’t, in Southern California, even keep up with our current variable air conditioning power loads (not even considering the loss of Hoover Dam’s power). Technological improvement is a necessary but not sufficient tool to prevent a rolling ecological collapse. Linkages such as existing power availability and car power needs will create unavoidable choke points that will not only knee-cap future growth but actually start to collapse existing industries (eg agriculture, tourism, etc.).
The final illusion that has clouded our judgment is that growth has no limits. Coasting on the century and a half bonanza of relatively low-cost oil/coal, we think that we will always be able to keep doing, as a society, what we have always been doing: profitably exploiting differences between supply and demand. But if supply craters and demand escalates exponentially, the entire oil/coal-based house of cards collapses. Already, but particularly this winter, Europe will be experiencing a form of this with Putin’s natural gas cut-off. In reality, there are real limits to growth, independent of particular malicious actors. Contrary to capitalist fantasies, these limits are not negotiable by simply increasing the price of necessary resources. In fact, we do not need to keep doing what we have always done. We have already started breaking the stranglehold that oil has on our lives. A few months ago, there were a few minutes when California was able to get ALL of its electrical power from renewable sources (wind, solar, hydro, etc). In other words, we were able to get all of the needed electricity for 40 million people from renewable sources! This was a victory we were supposed to reach in 2045 but we are, admittedly under very favorable conditions, already momentarily there today. The art will be to extend that success into less favorable conditions (heat waves, rush hour, etc.). But the take home is that it can be done.
Most politicians are no help
So deluded by the three illusions, the protective power of distance, the technological rescue and the myth of infinite growth we blithely ignore the precariousness of our situation. The biggest deniers of the reality we face are, of course, the common politicians who claim to lead us. With a few exceptions, they depend on keeping the illusions alive for their political donors and cash. Politicians who try to steer in a sustainable direction, or sound the alarm are punished or ignored, while those that keep the myths alive are rewarded with showers of corporate monies. Thank the development-real estate industry that our foolish governor thinks we should build 2.5 million new housing units in the next eight years in a state whose population has actually flat-lined and where the drought is already paralyzing both the rich (Montecito) and poor (Central Valley) communities. Meanwhile, thank the oil industry that Senator Manchin got poisonous carve-outs for the oil/coal industry in the recently passed IRA. These politician funding corporations, with international reach, want to keep the deadly charade going as long as they can and make money even as they knowingly destroy the whole world. Likewise, if politicians can keep the three illusions alive for just a little longer, they can survive to the next election. In short, they are incapable of addressing the problems we face because these problems transcend any election cycle.
Meanwhile, every metric of planetary health is tanking: pollution (PFAS in every person’s body), deforestation (fires and logging are destroying forests faster than trees can grow), food scarcity and insecurity (every edible fish food pyramid is collapsing), land shrinkage (sea level rise), the global population keeps expanding, homelessness is universal and increasing, affordability keeps decreasing (worldwide inflation explosion), immigration is worsening, and the list goes on and on and on.
But you already know all this: none of these dangerous metrics are surprising to you. They are the world we live in. But looking ahead, things are not looking so good for Homo Sapiens.
Next week’s article will be about what can be done.
By Mario Fonda-Bonardi AIA
S.M.a.r.t Santa Monica Architects for a Responsible Tomorrow
Thane Roberts, Architect, Robert H. Taylor AIA, Ron Goldman FAIA, Architect, Dan Jansenson, Architect & Building and Fire-Life Safety Commission, Samuel Tolkin Architect & Planning Commissioner, Mario Fonda- Bonardi AIA & Planning Commissioner, Marc Verville M.B.A, CPA (Inactive), Michael Jolly, AIR-CRE.
For previous articles see www.santamonicaarch.wordpress.com/writing