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How to adapt?

October 31, 2023

I recently read a long and complicated essay on place-based adaptation to biophysical collapse. It discussed policy, transport, economics — all local, but all also rather superfluous to the human being. In talking of the inadequacy of urban housing, the author claimed that “nothing is more vital for human existence than shelter.” Except maybe food? But on food, the author was silent, a common but baffling omission from urban writers who can’t seem to imagine a world in which food does not magically appear in urban markets and restaurants, completely independent of rural producers. There are reasons for this lack of vision. Elite urbanites generally are blind to the reality of embodied living and its basic need of food — perhaps intentionally — because they don’t want to do any of that, they can’t do any of that, they can’t see any way to remain elites while doing any of that, they would have to admit that they really aren’t elites relative to people who can do all that, and they probably would not survive if they had to rely on doing any of it.

Another writer was lamenting the lack of writing on suburban homesteading. Where are all the books on the people who are muddling along trying to survive in this crumbling urban world, she asked. Why do we always get to hear about the city people who fanned out into the rural wilds and learned to fend for themselves? (If one doesn’t count the substantial wealth necessary to that endeavor as one of the fending tools, that is…) To answer that question I would ask another: where are all the books on actual farmers, on those who already fend for themselves and feed all the rest of us as well?

The lack of books on small sufficiencies and primary producers comes from the lack of writers living these lives — because people living those lives don’t have the time or resources to turn their stories into published works. We read the words of the privileged, those who have the leisure to write because they are not doing the work of production. The essay on place-based adaptation blatantly revealed the author’s biases and blindnesses in saying that “The strongest centers [of adaptation] will be metropolitan areas with large progressive populations, and states with progressive majorities.” This, when modern urbanites can do exactly nothing to sustain a human being, never mind build adaptations for the future. This, when “place-based” involves, by definition, localized and diverse methods of adaptation, none of which are centrally led by urbanites who have no idea what other places need nor how to produce those needs. This, when we don’t have the luxury of setting some people apart from the work of production in order to lead. There will be no strongest centers, and those best at adaptation will not be leaders. They won’t even have time to be interested in what is happening outside their small communities.

Urbanites are not going to lead the way toward a sustainable human culture — because urban places are not sustainable. Primary production does not happen in urban areas and it can’t. There is not enough space to both house people in high density and grow food or fiber or produce building materials or mine feedstocks of stone, metals and energy. Nor are any urban centers located in places where any of this can happen even if all the people were evicted. Urban centers are great places for trade and at one time used to be good as transport hubs, but urban centers have not been and can not be places for primary production of the essentials for human life.

We don’t necessarily need human-centered zoning laws, public housing and walkable cities, though those are all good things. We need food and clothing and bodily care. Cities don’t produce those needs. Cities merely process and trade those things. In fact, there is no such thing as a truly walkable city. You can not walk to where the food is produced. You can only walk to where the food is sold. It was transported many miles to get to that place. It was also produced in ways that are dependent on transport of many other goods, these days with labor that is transported from other countries. None of which is in walkable distance to you in your urban home.

Similarly, you can’t walk to where your clothing is produced. Your clothes have very likely transversed the globe before getting to an urban shop where you buy them. The materials that went into your clothes probably circled the entire planet a few times before becoming the clothes you put onto your body. Many of the clothes you are wearing right now were synthesized from petroleum and use dyes that were also synthesized from petroleum. I daresay you do not have a petroleum source in your neighborhood, never mind a factory that can refine oil into plastics and dyes and then further spin those dyed plastics into thread and then weave them into shirts and underwear and stretchy pants and hair ties.

You can walk to buy things. You can not walk to a place that actually produces things in a city. And that is not going to change even as we bring production back into one geographic region. In a city, you will still not be living near the place where the grain is grown or the sheep are shorn. (You really don’t want to be living where fabric is dyed or leather is tanned, but that’s another issue and one that zoning laws do help with…)

Now, you might say that we have enough of many things to get by. Surely we don’t need any more hair ties and stretchy pants. Maybe we even have enough clothing to keep us all from nudity for a while if it were better distributed. And in that case, maybe cities would help. Ship all the excess to the urban masses and make sure that everybody gets what they need. Except that’s really not going to work.

For one thing, we have an abundance of the wrong things. We have mountains of t-shirts and trainers. There is rather less clothing that works in a temperate-climate winter. But the bigger problem is that we’ve been focused on selling t-shirts and trainers in large volume, not making them to last. So what we’ve made for many decades now hardly lasts a year of wear. If we stopped making t-shirts today, we would very quickly have mountains of t-shirt scraps and no actual shirts left. Probably toxic mountains, because nearly all our t-shirts are made using some form of plastic or dye.

The mountain of waste is another thing that always gets brushed under the table in urban elite writing and theorizing. (Despite not fitting under the table by any approximation.) A city is a waste stream, and very little of that can be reclaimed. Merely the exhaust from the transport necessary to get primary goods to a city is cooking our planet. Humans living in concentration has always been a bad thing for humans — and for whatever comes in contact with those dense populations and their wastes.

But what of that shelter? Don’t cities at least efficiently house millions? Not really. Even the place-making essayist said as much, though he blamed the lack of housing on such things as expensive rent and short-term leases. But shelter is not only a mostly impermeable roof and a place to sleep. Shelter is protection for the human body, the place where the human body finds rest and sustenance. Modern urban living arrangements largely do not qualify as shelter, and this will get worse as we head deeper into biophysical collapse.

In fact, most existing buildings, urban and otherwise, are functionally useless in an age of extreme temperatures and weather. We can’t even “wear them a year” and then make mountains of exhausted building trash. They are already insufficient as shelter, possibly dangerous, and this is especially true in the sorts of structures built in densely populated areas. People die in tall buildings when the electricity goes out, when the heat gets too much, when the cold gets too much, when water supplies fail. It is difficult to live even when the elevator dies. And elevators will die. In my office, we have an elevator that had its essential parts flooded in July. It is still inoperable at the end of October. Because it is apparently impossible to get replacements for those essential parts. Fortunately, the building is only three levels, but we have an old customer base. They can’t climb those three levels of stairs… Now, imagine this happening in a hospital. Or an elder care facility. Or an average 10-story high-rise.

Urban writers are blind to these flaws in their lives. Probably necessarily blind. They could not be urban writers if they drew attention to urban faults. There would be no more urban… Too many words written about cities as they actually are and cities would fall apart. The same can be said of our whole culture. So, not much is said of the fact that there isn’t a material or energetic path to maintaining our current systems, never mind adapting them.

Economy. Politics. Infrastructures and modes of living. Production and distribution of needs. None of it is sustainable. It’s not merely the carbon all these systems toss into the atmosphere, though that’s the only thing that gets much mention. Our way of life is inherently unsustainable. Biophysical breakdown is just one of the effects of ignoring the limits of a finite planet, of treating Earth as an inexhaustible resource pool and a waste dump. The system itself is consuming its own foundations – labor, materials, energy and social agreements. This last includes such things as value and hierarchical arrangements. In our modern minds, it is theoretically possible to concentrate value into the hands of a perpetually shrinking coterie. It’s also theoretically possible to infinitely grow the economy. Indeed, our economy is dependent on both theories being true — infinite growth and infinite wealth concentration. This should have been a red flag to theorists. But theorists are largely urbanites and very good at missing red flags.

Our systems are built on infinite resource use, infinite labor, infinite markets, and infinite waste streams so that all these can grow… infinitely. If there is no growth, capitalism is difficult to maintain. And in the recent system of creating value through lending money, growth is absolutely prerequisite. As long as this project remained small relative to the planet, it might have felt like there were actual infinities. But a few generations of perpetual growth – also known as exponential growth from the equations that track the changes over time – quickly turns a small population into an infestation. Humans are now become a virus, and the planet’s immune response has been triggered. And this is obvious to everyone but urban elites… who just keep saying that more of the same will save us.

The longer we try to prop up this project and keep the current systems in place, the less we have to work with to adapt to new conditions. The less we adapt the more likely it is that we will fail catastrophically. It seems likely, given headlines, that if we aren’t adapting right now to lower energy use, more localized systems, and more community production of needs, then we are probably going to have a shortened lifespan. To be blunt, in the midst of breakdown, nobody’s going to feed your sorry ass. More importantly, there won’t be surplus food production to feed many others beyond the producers. And this will be most true in the near term, not in some hazy dystopian future.

It may be that later systems will be built to feed urbanites, but it will take decades to clean whatever soil is available and remove concrete barriers to that soil — entailing the removal of the people that make all that urban concrete necessary. Given that reality — no food and much-reduced housing — it sure isn’t clear why anyone would remain in cities. Not for the decades that it will take to remediate urban areas and make them food-safe anyway. Moreover, the first people to go will likely be those with nothing to lose and everything to gain, those who own nothing. This is also, not coincidentally, the group who currently do most of the real work in a city, those who have all the productive skills in a city. So who is going to do the remediation work in a city? Who is going to do the productive work? Who is going to spend a lifetime to turn a city into a farm, and how are they providing for themselves until local food production becomes a reality? And why do that? It’s easier to just leave the place that can’t feed you. I don’t see a reason or a mechanism for turning cities into farms. Perhaps urban writers can see something I can’t…

Incidentally, this same logic is why billionaire bunkers are not going to work out well. Billionaires have no useful skills. They can’t feed themselves. They have no way to force people to do work for them in the midst of collapse. Nobody’s going to feed their sorry billionaire asses. The people who can take care of themselves are going to take care of themselves, and they won’t spend a second on the care and feeding of useless elites.

We see this in history repeatedly. Collapse means the end of urban life because those with skills just leave, to go fend for themselves wherever that is easiest. And the prospects for today’s urban elites are worse than in the past. Cities used to be productive centers. There used to be things made in cities that urbanites could trade with primary producers. But after decades of the global race to bottom-wages and hyper-financialisation, most cities have nothing to offer, nothing of real value to exchange for food or resources or labor.

Moreover, it isn’t obvious how primary producers could transport food to urbanites even if trade was desired. Low energy transport infrastructure does not exist now and doesn’t seem to be coming along any time soon. Like many of the things we needed to do to adapt, it has not been started and will not likely be started now that we’ve run out of time. Who is going to build the next transportation system? Who is going to pay for it all? How are the laborers going to have their bodily needs met while building? What are they building this system out of? Where do all those material resources come from? And how are those materials transported to building sites if it’s the transportation system itself that is being built?

Lovely circularity, no? But that’s the dilemma. Or maybe the poly-dilemma. None of this adaptation work is done now. Most of it isn’t started. The materials and labor are not funded or provided for. Nothing is stockpiled where it is needed, ready to go. So nothing is going to be built. And here we are swimming in biophysical collapse. Now is not the time to try to remediate the hopeless causes. Now is the time to abandon the Titanic as quickly as possible and head for open water before it takes us all down to the icy depths. The time to adapt cities is gone, if that ever was a possibility. It is time to leave.

And urban elites know this. They are doing everything in their power to keep people in place. To stop the inevitable hemorrhaging of skilled labor as the actual working classes go find places where they can build their own lives. To keep primary producers sending all the food to urban markets and restaurants. To prop up the dying system that makes them who they are even at the loss of their own future.

I read articles like the one about food-free urban adaptation of policies and theories and I want to cry. These are seemingly reasonable people… and yet they are bat-shit crazy. And they are controlling all the messaging and narrative in this culture. They are actively interfering with real adaptation. Just so they can remain urban elites.

All I can think is that we desperately need those books on real farmers…

Eliza Daley

Eliza Daley is a fiction. She is the part of me that is confident and wise, knowledgable and skilled. She is the voice that wants to be heard in this old woman who more often prefers her solitary and silent hearth. She has all my experience — as mother, musician, geologist and logician; book-seller, business-woman, and home-maker; baker, gardener, and chief bottle-washer; historian, anthropologist, philosopher, and over it all, writer. But she has not lived, is not encumbered with all the mess and emotion, and therefore she has a wonderfully fresh perspective on my life. I rather like knowing her. I do think you will as well.